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My company has developed a web application based on GWT (Google Web Toolkit) and Ext GWT in the browser, JBoss application server and Oracle in the backend. The app allows users of different departments of the same company, working in different locations, to collaborate in order to employ a fairly complex approval process for really expensive technical equipment. Let's call this app app 1. The app is dialog-based, using Ext GWT's Desktop component to provide an MDI app within a browser window. It's been used productively for more than a year now.

Another app, app 2, also has been developed which offers a specific subset of the functionality of App 1. By subset I mean that - some dialogs are not provided (like those for administration of master data or system settings) - some dialogs are reused but some input or display fields are missing - some data are filtered (users will only see a subset of the information that is available to users of app 1) - some dialogs are completely identical

Currently, app 2 is there but nobody uses it, because it has not been officially published to anyone and nobody has an account to log in. The goal for 2012 is to open app 2 to a host of new users. These will be working at different companies in different locations all over Germany and potentially neighboring countries (Austria, Switzerland, France, ...) as well. It is not possible to get all new users together and give them a training of several days in order to learn how to use the app and the process. The documentation that exists so far is a user manual, a PDF file of more than 100 pages, to be found through a "?" menu.

Both apps have been developed by my company for another company. None of these two have very much experience with providing and supporting a public web application for the rest of the world.

So, what can we do in order to provide people with information and assistance on how to use this app? Here are the measures that I've come up with so far:

  • Provide a start page (just static HTML) before the login screen that describes (shortly!) what this app is and why users would want to log in and use it. Also, how to obtain a login and where to find support
  • Create a guided tour of short videos (created with Camtasia Studio) of at most 3 minutes each. Those will guide through the most important use cases step by step. I'm thinking of something like this https://sourcing.thyssenkrupp.info/lvportal/external/guidedtour/tk_uk_files/uk_html.html which was created a couple years ago in a very similar situation
  • A start screen, which will pop up immediately after login. It will show a list of command links with a short explanatory text for the most frequent use cases. Also, it will provide a direct link to the guided tour and the user manual
  • A task-oriented list of item counts for the user (like on every line something like "Items on which you have to do X", "Items on which you have to do Y" etc). This list will be either integrated into the background of the desktop-in-a-browser-window or put into a docked area to the left of the desktop itself
  • I'm also considering an FAQ page. But of course there haven't been any questions asked yet so we don't know what to put there. So the idea is to have ab easily updatable page of static HTML content. Or maybe a miniature CMS integrated into the app itself.

Any comments on those measures and any further suggestions are welcome.

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what's so complex for users? I think that simplifying the interface and documenting the workflow itself should be steps prior to documenting the app. People have been using text-mode forms driven entirely by keyboard for ages without problems. –  alex Dec 28 '11 at 18:10
    
Alex, you're right. The workflow belongs in there. It actually already is, in the form of diagrams within the PDF-file manual. But I think those diagrams should be more easily accessible, either in the start screen, the help menu or both. If your comment was an actual answer, I'd have upvoted it, but thanks anyway ;-) –  Robert Petermeier Dec 30 '11 at 16:49
    
I have encountered text-mode forms (on mainframes as well as old MS/DOS apps using dBase) that you mentioned. I wouldn't know how to train new users on using them, though. The users of such programs that I've met so far had been using them for years, in some cases decades. They could do it in their sleep... –  Robert Petermeier Dec 30 '11 at 16:52
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1 Answer

I like the suggestions that you have and think these are all great things to have assuming that the majority of your userbase are mostly ignorant or unfamiliar with the application. A few suggestions though:

If your application has some "power user" features tailored to educated users on the run, you might want to also consider adding a Tip-of-the-Day dialog or dashboard message after the user logs in. These tips can include lesser known or utilized power user features that are not necessary to know or include in a tutorial, but may be helpful in teaching users better and more efficient ways to use the application. Of course given them the option to disable the Tip-of-the-Day dialog for those that find those distracting.

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Thanks, I'l discuss that with our client. –  Robert Petermeier Dec 30 '11 at 16:46
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