This list isn't in any special order. Any of these UAs may make use of the others. For example, Coaches and Cue Cards are commonly invoked through Help.
However, even this list of a half-dozen aids is not enough. None of these UAs will automatically produce a complete document. All of them depend on the user having some knowledge about how the software works.
Wizards Do More
Another class of UA features, called "Wizards," takes full advantage of the capabilities of software. Wizards are an automated way to create documents. A "document" in this sense is a collection of information, not always a physical record. Using a Wizard, individuals can get useful work done even with little or no training in the use of the software.
A Wizard appears as a sequence of dialogs that elicit choices and inputs from the user about a very specific task. A letter Wizard for example will lead the user through the steps of producing various kinds of correspondence. The Wizard then creates the letter based on the information the user provides. Afterward, the user can make changes as desired.
A well-designed Wizard has an orderly and easily understood interface. The interface controls the user input and ensures a high probability of user success. This is a big benefit when you consider the amount of time that can be lost in trying to get software to produce a desired result.
A quick look at the Microsoft Office applications will turn up over two dozen Wizards. Some are very basic (the Auto content Wizard in PowerPoint), and some are exotic (the OLAP Cube Wizard in Access). The most commonly used Wizards create envelopes, letters, and direct mail, or they produce charts from spreadsheets.
Another popular Wizard is the Answer Wizard, which now appears in most software. The Answer Wizard makes it possible for Help to respond to plain-language questions typed in by the user.
The designer's challenge in creating a Wizard is to strike a balance. The user wants results with minimum effort. At the same time, the user needs maximum flexibility in order to create unique documents. This is a hard choice to make.
One way to attempt this balance in Wizard design is through use of graphics, choice formats, and previews. Many Wizards do a very good job of this.
Wizards in Action
The Chart Wizard in Microsoft Excel takes very little typed input, and the user can see the effect of choices before committing to them. The result is an effective, professional-looking chart in very short order.
It's important to proofread the final document. Be sure to remove any leftover "boilerplate"! For example, "Type your letter here" is not a phrase most people would want to have in a resume cover letter.
Which brings up another important point: know how your Wizard works. You can make changes to the template that a letter Wizard uses, for example. The Wizard will then set up new letters in your own style, with your choice of fonts, indents, and margins.
Another example of the way that Wizards can handle very complex tasks is the ERIC Search Wizard (http://www.SearchERIC.org). In this case, the Wizard is online on the Web.
The ERIC Search Wizard uses only text input and very restricted choices made with drop-down boxes and options. It will return a full list of links to suggested alternative topics. The full search engine does not provide this function. The Wizard also returns a smaller, better-focused set of search results.
The ERIC Search Wizard helps anyone locate information in a huge database of articles. Even an expert who knew exactly what she wanted and who knew how to put together a Boolean search expression might not do as good a job.
Using Wizards to Your Advantage
Wizards can save you, the user, a great deal of time and produce uniform, professional results with little effort. Try these tips:
- Look for Wizards when you are learning a new software application.
- Become familiar with the way the Wizards in your software work.
- Modify templates the Wizards use so that they will produce your personal documents in your own unique style.
- Change your work routine so that you use the appropriate Wizard by default.
- Check for any boilerplate that must be removed from the final document.
- If you are training others to use the application, show them how to use the Wizards first, and leave the bells and whistles for later.
You'll be pleased with the results, and you won't have to "build the watch" every time!