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Ribbon Hero — User Assistance Masquerading as a Game

By Joe Welinske

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Fun, interactive, viral. Those terms rarely come to mind when we think about the user assistance we develop. But they are attributes we should aspire to. Today's software consumers are used to a rich presentation of action-oriented media. Ultimately our job is to help users get on a smooth track to using our software. If we can make that an enjoyable experience along the way, so much the better.

A unique user assistance offering from Microsoft provides just that kind of experience. Ribbon Hero is a software tutorial hidden inside a game. Users can explore features of Microsoft Office while completing a series of interactive challenges. It has been very successful according to project leader Jennifer Michelstein of Microsoft Office Labs. Jennifer has been working at Microsoft for the past seven years. I met with her on the Microsoft campus to talk about what went into creating Ribbon Hero.

Originally, the Ribbon Hero concept was one of many ideas that are regularly floated around in the experimental halls of Office Labs. Jennifer took hold of the concept and ran with it, even though she wasn't sure it would end up being a viable activity. But she did believe in the power of games and the possibilities that a game experience could have over other forms of user assistance. "In a game, players are OK with trying things, failing, trying again, and learning", said Jennifer. She also mentioned the emotions we experience with games. The challenge then was to develop an engaging game that would accomplish the training goals while not distracting users from their work with the product.

The development team began small with Jennifer, a developer, and a UX designer. The first stage was sketching out game screens on paper and trying to come up with an interesting game format. The team reached out to colleagues in the XBox and Games Studios at Microsoft for help in making the game fun. Both the user assistance experts and the product teams provided input to the Ribbon Hero team on which features to highlight in the game.

Jennifer described the extensive amount of user research that went into the project. Focus groups were used to test the sketched scenarios. What made the users laugh and smile? Where did they get frustrated or bored? What was the appropriate level of difficulty? Eventually they developed working prototypes. These prototypes were then presented to users in the Microsoft usability labs. The start-to-finish user research process is called "play testing."

The Ribbon Hero team made adjustments to the game in response to user feedback. For example, in the initial design the game screens offered the users a choice of playing a challenge, watching a video, or viewing a Help article. The overwhelming choice of users was to play a challenge. As an experiment, the team offered some topics that limited the choice to just the video and Help. These topics were generally skipped in favor of ones with challenges. The message from users seemed clear and challenges became the main focus of Ribbon Hero.

What began as an experiment has grown into a full-time project for the team and development continues for future updates. When Office 2010 rolled out this year, new challenges were added to Ribbon Hero that specifically addressed 2010 features. It continues to be a balancing act to select topics that are important, yet appeal to a wide variety of users. Extremely basic items are avoided in favor of features that users might not normally discover on their own.

Every user starts out with the same game. But based on what Office features Ribbon Hero players are using outside of the game, Ribbon Hero adjusts the order of training content to try to ensure that players see features they haven't already learned." The team thought about having different challenges for different experience levels. They found that users had difficulty accurately assessing their experience. And a lot of experience with one aspect of Office might not translate to competency in other areas.

The game uses opt-in data gathering. The aggregate data is used to provide the team with feedback on how people are using the game. There is also a discussion forum which is a good source for more qualitative feedback.

The team continues to develop Ribbon Hero and we can probably expect to see new challenges in the future.

Joe Welinske Joe Welinske is the president of WritersUA - a company devoted to providing training and information for user assistance professionals. Joe has been involved with software documentation development since 1984. Together with Scott Boggan and David Farkas, Joe authored two editions of the popular and pioneering book Developing Online Help for Windows. He has also taught online Help courses at the University of Washington, UC Santa Cruz, and Bellevue Community College. Joe was the President of STC Puget Sound Chapter from 2006-2008 and remains on the board in charge of gathering chapter sponsorships. Joe is currently Membership Director for the Puget Sound Chapter of the Usability Professionals Association.


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shannonm *at* writersua *dot* com
Published on November 09, 2010


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