What’s the difference between training and user assistance?

I get asked this a lot. Even people responsible for training or user assistance struggle with the difference between the two types of content. I’ve searched for clear definitions with little success—I was looking for something that concisely delineates the difference between training and user assistance in the context of software programs. Does it exist? I couldn’t find it, so, I’ll address the subject myself.

Let’s start with the basics

What is training? According to the American Heritage Dictionary, training is:

1. The process or routine of one who trains.
2. The state of being trained.

1. To coach in or accustom to a mode of behavior or performance.
2. To make proficient with specialized instruction and practice.
3. To prepare physically, as with a regimen: train athletes for track-and-field competition.

Training = instruction + practice > for revenue

Training materials are usually prepared post-development. After a software program (or feature) is developed, tried, and tested, the instructional designer can assess the program as a whole. The writer can prepare content focused on key functionality, the learners’ goals, and provide exercises to cement the learning concepts. Training is usually revenue-based: it’s another “product” that is sold but not necessarily with the software.

What is user assistance?
It’s a general term for just-in-time (JIT) assistance for software users. The phrase incorporates all forms of help available to a user, which includes online help, user guides, tooltips, hover help, walkthroughs, and guided tours.

But I also looked up the definition of “documentation” in the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. a. The act or an instance of the supplying of documents or supporting references or records. b. The documents or references so supplied.
2. The collation, synopsizing, and coding of printed material for future reference.
3. Computers – The organized collection of records that describe the structure, purpose, operation, maintenance, and data requirements for a computer program, operating system, or hardware device.

User assistance = reference + procedures > for better experiences

User assistance is prepared with the software development as part of the complete software package. Delivering complex software without any supporting documentation (the how and why, decision support) can cause your users to give up or find awkward workarounds when they encounter an obstacle in the program. A user assistance writer’s objectives are about experience and understanding where JIT assistance is needed to get users through the obstacles. It’s help at the point of need in the program.

Why are they different?

Training and user assistance serve entirely different purposes. Consider the following example: In a training guide, you might teach someone about using the online help: how to open the help menu, the different options available under that menu, how context-sensitive help works, how to use the index versus the search function, and so on. In a reference guide or the online help (user documentation), you wouldn’t do this.

Training teaches someone the basics of interacting with the software, using real-world examples and exercises; the user assistance provides detailed instruction or in-depth procedures. You would train me to create a new customer invoice using the software, from the timing to which buttons to click to any follow-up processes and best practices. The user guide or help topic would explain all options in the Create Invoice page of the software and provide the steps to using the page, as well as links to related topics.

User assistance isn’t just a guide or online help. The research is clear: today’s software users want to read less and do more. They want programs that are intuitive, that empower them, and that anticipate their needs. This means that user assistance often comes in the form of tooltips, guided tours and walkthroughs that can easily be dismissed, and feature-specific tutorials.

Knowing your audience

When writing either training or user documentation, you must spend time with your audience to learn their needs. Spending time with them can including sitting with customer service and customer support representatives to listen to their calls, asking customer service or support reps for feedback, actually talking directly with your audience, and reviewing user research. This is necessary to produce documentation that helps, rather than making potentially incorrect assumptions and wasting your time creating documentation that collects dust.

Prioritize your audience’s needs: something that works for a general software user could help the super users (such as management), but if you focus on the needs of the super users, it won’t work at all for the majority of your audience. You may need to create additional documentation just for the super users to focus on their specific advanced needs.

Writing strategically

Some duplication between training and product documentation is inevitable, but as a writer, you shouldn’t be wasting time doing things twice or copying content from one source into another. In some cases, it makes sense to repeat information. If it becomes the foundation of your documentation, look into single sourcing your content with a content management system (CMS) or content authoring program.

When writing documentation, ask yourself: “What information does the reader need in order to understand the instructions I present?”

Tackle this by explicitly identifying your assumptions, and state those assumptions clearly. For example, in a user guide or help topic, introduce the user interface by describing its purpose before delving into procedures to use the interface. Consider this example from a help topic for Affordable Care Act software:

Generating Forms

You can use the Generate Forms panel to:

  • Create the ACA forms required by the IRS. Click Generate Forms to launch the Forms Wizard, which guides you through filling out the required information.
  • Import your employees’ covered individuals (beneficiaries). You can import the information required in the forms for your employees to file (1095-C). Each beneficiary or dependent under your employees’ healthcare insurance must be listed in the form, and if that information is not available in your <Software Name> program, you can import it using a file.
  • Import your employee offer and coverage codes. You can import the information required in the forms for your employees to file (1095-C). Offer and coverage codes must be listed in the form, and if that information is not available in your <Software Name> program, you can import it using a file.
  • Review your generated forms. After the forms are generated, you can review each individual form and manually edit the information if necessary.

In a training guide, emphasize the overall flow: what do I do and why? 

I’m fond of the Minimalist theory of J.M. Carroll, a popular framework for instructional design focused on computer users. The theory states that (1) all learning tasks should be meaningful and self-contained activities, (2) learners should be given realistic projects as quickly as possible, (3) instruction should permit self-directed reasoning and improvising by increasing the number of active learning activities, (4) training materials and activities should provide for error recognition and recovery and, (5) there should be a close linkage between the training and actual system.

Here’s an introductory page of a training guide for the same Affordable Care Act program:

The purpose of this guide is to teach you how to create Affordable Care Act forms using <Software Name>. The benefit of learning this information is to quickly and easily create IRS-compliant 1095-C and 1094-C forms that are ready to file. 

At the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Create new 1095-C and 1094-C forms
  • Import the employee information required for the forms
  • Edit and finalize the forms

Generate 1095-C Forms Using the Forms Wizard
Import Employees’ Covered Individuals and Beneficiaries
Import Employee Offer and Coverage Codes
Review and Edit Forms
Finalize Forms

Blurring the lines between content types

So yes, there’s overlap. The software works the same way, regardless of how you write about it. But the objectives and approach are different. The point of access is significantly different.

And after everything I’ve described in this article, understand that for your audience, the type of content rarely matters—what’s most important to any audience is getting answers when they need it. Your readers’ objectives are practical: how do I use the software to accomplish my goals? The format in which your readers receive the answers rarely matters to them, as long as they have access to the answers and guidance they need when they need it.

The reasons to differentiate the types of content depend only on your approach as a writer, your software company’s directives, the timing of your deliverables, and perhaps in the structure of your software development organization.

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