I came across the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition while searching elsewhere on StackExchange, and I thought it would be a useful approach to designing the help and instructional information for users, both in an online help or built into the interactions of the page.

Some of the descriptions of skill levels I thought are very good for deciding where and how to provide help for users:

  • Novice: "rigid adherence to taught rules or plans"; no exercise of "discretionary judgment"

This seems to fit with new users that need to be guided through a workflow or walkthrough.

  • Competent: "coping with crowdedness" (multiple activities, accumulation of information); some perception of actions in relation to goals

This would seem to fit with regular users that need quick access to clearly defined functions and features to the system that align with specific goals and tasks.

Just wondering if anyone has had experience with applying user skill categorization to the design of online help, and whether it is successful or not?

  • 2
    Aren't all the Read more..., More resources..., Buy advanced trainings for XY, Quick start video tutorials, hints to post correct post here on StackExchange etc. various solutions to this? Or are you asking about something more specific?
    – digsrafik
    Jul 23, 2014 at 6:32
  • @digsrafik I am after how people decide what type of help/instruction content are designed for users of different skill levels, and what systems they use to categorize their users.
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 23, 2014 at 23:01
  • I think it needs to start before the online help. The app itself should adjust to different skill levels and then the help just adjusts to the current configuration of the app. If the app overwhelms a novice user that it is not easily fixed help. A novice may like a tutorial but I would still offer that to all users. You may get advanced users that just like tutorials.
    – paparazzo
    Jun 23, 2015 at 16:28

1 Answer 1


The Dreyfus model assumes that the person is focused on learning. Software users are task oriented.

A novice user will muddle through until they can complete exactly what they wanted to accomplish with the system. They are not focused on learning to use the system, just on completing the task. They don't look for better / more efficient ways of completing a task if they have one way. For example, I have seen otherwise "expert" users of a complex financial application delete rows from a grid by deleting the values from each individual cell. There was a faster way, but this method worked so they never looked for a better one.

I'm also not sure there are distinct levels of skill that users attain. A user may have muddled through one part of a system enough to accidentally discover more "expert" features, yet know next to nothing about another part.

In my experience, "help" needs to be 2 things:

  • Placed where a user will literally trip over it.
  • Never bothering them unless it is directly relevant to the task at hand.

It has to prompt them at the exact moment they need it.

This is because, no matter how nice you make a help section, only a small number of users will bother to look at it (these people are normally the analytically developer types who are designing software). A nice article on the stagnating expertise effect.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.