What is it?
A broad term for describing the different forms of content that can help people use a software application or other technological product correctly.
Why is it important?
User assistance places the work that technical communicators do within the framework of user-centered design, of improving the experience of a user, rather than seeing that work as simply creating manuals.
Why does a technical communicator need to know this?
It’s very easy to think about what technical communicators do by looking at what they produce. 50 years ago, you’d have heard “they’re the people who write manuals,” and more recently, it might have been “they’re the people who write Windows Help.” If technical communication is seen as only creating specific items, there’s a danger that technical communicators will miss out on opportunities to do things differently.
Indeed, new technologies have led technical communicators to look for an appropriate term for describing all the different deliverables that can be provided today. User assistance fills that role.
This enables technical communicators to talk about the process as well as the deliverables. Instead of saying, “let’s write a Help file,” we ask “what is the best possible way to help the user for this situation?” User assistance can include: text in the user interface, online help, wizards, “What’s This?” help (text that appears when you move your mouse over a word), on-boarding screens, videos, software tutorials, quick reference cards, or PDF/printed manuals. It also includes information embedded in the application itself – preempting problems users might experience by making information more accessible and more relevant.
Delivering good user assistance still requires the ability to write clearly and succinctly. However, it also requires an understanding of the technologies that can be used to deliver content and an understanding of your users and their needs.