The need for help documentation in iOS

iOS gestures are starting to give me headachesAt this point in the iOS game I’m sure most of us, me included, have played with hundreds applications. Some are straight forward, and some take some getting use to before you can jump right into using them. The straightforward applications aren’t what bothers me; it’s the applications that are so forward thinking in their approach to the touch interface that users are left hacking and swiping until they find all of the hidden features available within an application.

This problem became pretty evident when the Twitter for iPad application launched, bringing with it gestures and features that often lay hidden, out-of-sight, until someone accidentally stumbled across it. Now the same problem is happening in Apple’s own iMovie. That’s when I realized something needs to be done to educate the users. Without a traditional menubar, or help menu in iOS, users are left to figure out how gestures interact with the application. Some are obvious, like pinch to zoom, while some on the other hand are not, like splitting a video clip in iMovie.

How are users supposed to know that splitting a clip in iMovie is as simple as placing the red timeline indicator where you want it to split, then dragging a finger down the line without being shown or told that the solution exists?

How do we know it’s a problem? We missed it ourselves during a recent Macgasm video podcast. We spent time slamming the iPad edition of iMovie for something that it could actually do because we had no idea we could actually do it. That’s a problem. When people who know better find themselves missing key features in an application because they haven’t happened to stumble across it previously, there’s clearly a need for some kind of help manual in iOS. A commentator on our video suggested that we do more research before we head to camera, and he’s probably right, but that doesn’t answer the major question here: how is a typical user supposed to find these gestures and hidden UI interactions without being told about them? Should we Google everything?

It seems like a lot of people are heading to the Apple discussion boards for answers about iMovie in particular, but even the people there seem a little bit confused about the differences between cutting a clip into two, and the trimming of clips. The best suggestion on the discussion board is to put the same clip in the timeline twice, and trim both to the point where you want the clip to be cut — not even remotely the optimal solution.

Are we at the stage with iOS, and more particularly gestures, that we need help files or read me documents that explain these gestures in detail within the application? Apple does it in OS X in the System Preferences. If you’re curious about Gestures on your Mac, all you have to do is open System Preferences and watch a couple of videos. App developers haven’t integrated that kind of tutorial level in apps to our knowledge.

Could we simple get away with Apple creating a documentation application that would automatically integrate manuals from newly downloaded applications? For the most part, iOS applications don’t need manuals, but as we head towards more professional applications like iMovie and Garageband, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that some applications need documentation. I have a vested interest in figuring these applications out, and seeing if they work as advertised, but something tells me the average consumer doesn’t have the time or energy to sit down and spend an hour trying to figure out how to split clips in two.

It’s not just iMovie though. Aweditorium suffers from the same kind of problems. Do have any clue how a user would turn on AirPlay within Aweditorium? Yeah, me neither. I know the functionality exists — a tweet from the Aweditorium gang told me it does — but I still can’t find it despite trying and trying and trying, and Googling and Googling and Googling. But here’s the kicker: the AirPlay tools aren’t found in-app at all. Aweditorium lets you push the audio to an Apple TV using the built in AirPlay tools found in the multi-tasking bar of iOS. It’s simple once you actually figure it out, but it could be a lot simpler if I could find that information somewhere. I know what you’re thinking: Google is the best alternative. Simply put, it’s not. In both cases, Googling for help with both the iMovie and Aweditorium issues yielded less than satisfactory results. Content farms reigned supreme, and outside of finding out that the functionality was possible, there was no indication of how to either cut an iMovie clip in half or send Aweditorium audio to the Apple TV. None. Zip. Ziltch. Just a lot of press release-like posts that were half-baked.

The best way I’ve seen this problem addressed to date is in a couple of applications that have overlaid some quick notes over top of the application upon first launch. Other than that, users are left on their own to figure things out. In some cases it’s part of the fun, but for most, getting right into the applications and using it immediately is of far more importance than self-discovery.

Developers, stop making your users guess how to use your application, and start telling them. User retention will increase, and people posting pissed off blog posts will decrease.

A couple possible solutions

The best solution I can think of is either shipping apps with a built in manual that’s accessible from within the app, or a standalone application for all manuals much like Apple’s upcoming Newsstand application. There’s probably a better solution out there, but as it stands this is the simplest approach I could come up with.

Another approach could be putting these help files directly in the application’s settings in the Settings application in iOS. Users are already going there to turn off location settings and tweak their applications, so why not put some help notes there for your hidden features, gestures, and other special things.

If we’re moving to a post-PC world like Apple claims, it would be a shame if the help documentation didn’t make the trek into the new age alongside the iPad. Applications may be simpler these days, but that doesn’t mean that a good support document wouldn’t be handy — especially if an application relies heavily on gestures that a user would never realize unless they discovered them by accident.

Let’s get it done.

Joshua is the Content Marketing Manager at BuySellAds. He’s also the founder of And since all that doesn’t quite give him enough content to wrangle, he’s also a technology journalist in his spare time, with bylines at PCWorld, Macworld… Full Bio