I work on UX team designing a massive, technically-complex, operations application. Difficult enough to comprehend that documentation will help many users, even if the UX is as intuitive and easy to use as it can be, because of how pieces of the product need to work together.

Our documentation team is understaffed and spread thin, and as a result, our user guides* tend to be the type that just describes, in words, what's on the screen rather than explain what features do or, even better, how those features work together to complete a task.

(* user guide in this context: a collection of pages of written word, perhaps with screen shots and short videos, that's located outside of the application and linked to from inside the application)

I'd like to propose to my team that rather than spreading the documentation team thin, that we focus resources on one area of the application to provide a great self-learning experience. However, that would mean that many areas of the application will have no user guide at all.

What's worse for the user: having a great guide in some places and nothing in other places, or having a user guide for everything but the guide isn't very useful? (If you're thinking the answer is obvious, some things to consider: would no user guide in some areas look like a bug? Would it send a message that we don't care about helping our users? Things like that, outside the usability of the guide, which is just one piece of the user experience puzzle, albeit a major piece.)

I'd love to hear from anyone who has researched how people use user guides today, and the expectation and priority of user guides as part of the entire user experience.


1) Of course, outside of user guides, we'll continue to make our user interface as intuitive as possible, include contextual help, offer discussion forums and training, etc. This question is strictly about the user guides for the application.

2) I did read the post Is User Guide really necessary, but I felt it talked more about guides vs. no guides, making the assumption that the guide is good. I felt my question was different, more about trade-offs.

3 Answers 3


I'd say you're better off with no guide--and a good intuitive solution--than crappy guides. In fact, to the extent that you can build guidance into the design, you should. I recently shot a brief screencast on how to search basics for a SharePoint redesign and it's now linked at the top of the search page, along with an email address for people who prefer one-on-one guidance, which I provide.

I would also recommend getting away from the sort of docs you described: thin Word docs with a screenshot or two. If you ever have sufficient hands on deck to create documentation, consider embedded forms and screencasts. Those solutions tend to meet most users where they are.


we focus resources on one area of the application to provide a great self-learning experience

If you have an intuitive UI, and also focus on specific workflows (hopefully ones that new users tend to use first, and most common use cases) then it could be enough to bootstrap users into understanding the overall application.

Sure, there will be many cases where there is less handholding with prompts and descriptions, but so long as the UI and actions are consistent overall it shouldn't be a jarring transition into a zone with 'no user guide or learning experience at all'.

would no user guide in some areas look like a bug? Would it send a message that we don't care about helping our users?

Since the current version has them, removing user guides abruptly might be upsetting. You could perhaps replace them with a simple guide that is only meant for new users, followed by a section in it explaining that your focus is on the UI to better help users and solicit feedback on improving it further. This way, users are assured of a good reason why you've cut down on guides; and you may get valuable help to improve the experience in other areas that initially could not be addressed by the team.

Personally, I'd tend to get help from fellow users instead of wading thru user guides for an application. Though for a complex application, something like printable cheat sheets for some operations might be really useful.


I agree with James. Great user experience is first, but if you're spread that thin, record some videos on the essentials with the staff you do have. It won't be as professional as documentation, but it will still provide the users some assistance if they need it. No self-help at all will simply lead to phone calls and emails to your support line.

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