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