GarageBand and Enterprise App Documentation

My new iPad 2 finally arrived over the weekend. It’s a pretty great device and I’ve been enjoying exploring all of the cool things you can do with it and all of the great apps available. One of the things that sold me on the iPad over an Android tablet was the new GarageBand app. I’m an extremely poor guitar player and have a little experience running a sound board from my days at WKCO, so I thought dabbling in songwriting would be a lot of fun.

As a technical communicator, I’m interested in the evolution of user assistance from the days of Big Tomes for PC Applications to modern apps running on smartphones and tablets. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that a well-designed, intuitive user experience and excellent copywriting on labels and controls obviates the need for formal documentation. For many small apps, this works out just fine, especially for “fun” apps, where exploring the interface to learn how it works is part of the enjoyment.

But what about larger, more complex applications? Tablets especially invite the sort of multi-layered user experience (simple, intuitive for beginners with deeper interactions readily available for power users) that would benefit from a visit from your old friend the technical writer.

So I was interested to see that GarageBand for iPad actually has a help button on almost every screen. Touch the help button and you get an overlay explaining how to interact with the controls on screen:


What makes this even more useful is that you can still control the application with the help overlay displayed.

If you need more depth, you can tap through to an actual help file. While tapping on drums or piano keys to make sounds is plenty intuitive, the eight-track recorder could use a little more explanation for someone who has never used one before.


You Said Something About Enterprise Applications?

This what an Enterprise Application looks like:


Doesn’t seem to have a lot in common with GarageBand, does it?

Just like there are lots of knobs and controls in the GarageBand interface that can quickly become overwhelming, there also fields, menus, and buttons in your enterprise application that your users may not understand off the top of their heads.

And, just like in GarageBand, there’s no need to place user assistance in a silo completely separate from the application. Field definitions can easily be placed in tooltips. Reports can be defined right in the interface. The help file can be there for the users to define more complex interactions and help with big picture issues, like how running a set of reports come together to help perform a bigger task.

Often we find that the application designers thought of this and added a requirement for tooltips. But since the tooltips are part of the application, they are left to be written by the developers. (I’m surprised to this day how much UI text is hard-coded into the application as opposed to being stored in resource files that can be edited by non-technical product teams.)

Of course, developers are frequently not the best writers, and often not even native speakers. Not to mention that they’d rather be solving programming issues than writing help text. Developers are often not given the business uses for the applications they develop, as well, which leads to a poor understanding of what the users actually need to know to complete their tasks. That’s what you so often see tautological field definitions in tooltips.


What can we learn about developing user assistance from GarageBand:

  • Bringing user assistance into the application can make it more accessible. You don’t need to direct your users into a separate documentation window just to look up field definitions.
  • Take as much or more care with assistance in the application as you do with your help file. Like your help file, it should be written by professionals. Consider involving your technical communication team in the copywriting for the application as well. Poor tooltips might as well not be there.
  • For complex applications like GarageBand and BigCo’s TPS Report portal, more in depth help should still be available.

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