Cue Cards

 What are Cue Cards?

In a perfect world, there would be no need for documentation or help files, because all software would be intuitive and easy to use. However, most software, for one reason or another, falls short of these lofty goals. While the developer of a narrow-market application might make accurate predictions about the user's competency, this is not possible with most applications. Accommodating the full spectrum of computer literacy among users presents a number of problems to the software designer.

According to Alan Cooper in his book About Face, most users are "perpetual intermediates", staying forever in that hazy plateau between rank beginners and power users. Experts may need very little help, and are often happy just knowing the keystroke shortcuts. Intermediates may want a help file with a how-to section and a good index for when they want to learn something new, but beginners often need cue cards or wizards to help them use an application.

Wizards play an active part in stepping the user through a procedure. Commonly, wizards consist of a number of similar dialogs where the user steps linearly through a task and uses the contents of the dialogs to make selections or enter information, effectively driving the application. In most cases, wizards can be used in place of other methods such as menus and regular dialogs. According to current research, users who use a wizard successfully rarely want to change to another method, so wizards should not be considered as a method of educating the user. To use an analogy, a wizard is someone who sits at your keyboard and asks you what he should do.

Cue cards, on the other hand, are more like a friend that lets you run the keyboard and looks over your shoulder and offers helpful advice and instruction. Cue cards are entirely passive, are driven by the application, and are more like a step-by-step procedure than a task automator. Cue cards and wizards are normally implemented in software, with the normal requisite design, testing, and debugging that goes along with software (not to mention the increased size of the executable). Most software designers overlook the fact that cue cards can be implemented quickly and easily using the WinHelp API call and a help file full of topics.

My interest in cue cards comes from a shareware program I wrote. One particular procedure - that of creating a diskette label - seemed to be particularly difficult for my users to understand until they had used it several times. In constructing a new version, I decided to use cue cards to step users through this procedure.

Copyright © 2009 by Dana Cline
Last Updated  Monday, April 06, 2009
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