Supporting novice application users in learning by trial and error and reading help

Oscar Daniel Andrade, University of Texas at El Paso


This thesis examines three related topics in analyzing user preferences for troubleshooting application usability problems and the kinds of issues that influence such preferences. The goal of this thesis is to propose (1) ways in which users can be supported to learn to use applications; and (2) a model to rewrite help such that users are able to adapt its contents dynamically. The consensus of documentation research is that users rarely use help, usually preferring to muddle through. To increase use of help, tutorials for novice users could be changed from guided presentations toward using the application's help system. To determine whether this approach would increase users' use of help when they encountered problems with an application, I developed an alternative, help-based tutorial introduction to Microsoft Publisher. I compared the behaviors of users introduced to Publisher with the help-based tutorial with the behaviors of users who learned from a traditional tutorial. A balanced study of 22 novice users of Publisher suggests that using a help-based tutorial leads to significantly greater use of help when users encounter problems. However, the data also suggest that the increased use of help may not lead to more effective task performance. A post-experiment survey showed that the subjects did not find help useful; and while they still used help at least occasionally, they used other problem-solving strategies. I analyzed recordings of the subjects, to identify (1) transition patterns among problem-solving approaches, and (2) the frequency of these transitions. The analysis indicates that people switch frequently between consulting help and exploring the interface. Switching between problem-solving approaches appears to be an effective way of succeeding in tasks. Applications and their help systems can be better designed to support users who switch between help and non-help approaches to solving problems. Another common complaint about help is that the contents are pitched at the wrong level of technical detail for users, but the “right” level differs among them. Building on a prior definition of the space of possible expressions of documentation in terms of task, application, and user experience, I explore what it means to express help at different levels and conclude by proposing an interface users could adapt dynamically to find help expressed at their own “right” level.

Subject Area

Information Technology|Computer science

Recommended Citation

Andrade, Oscar Daniel, "Supporting novice application users in learning by trial and error and reading help" (2009). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1473849.