Go to any computer program you use on a daily or weekly basis. Find the online help. Next, find an article in the middle, something fairly obscure, but something you are aware of. (Not an edge case, but not a “overview” either). Read it. No seriously, slow down and read every word. I know you didn’t actually do it because I didn’t either. It’s too painful. My eyes start to gloss over in just a few seconds.
OK, I just did it for Chrome, because I am in Chrome right now. I forced myself. I clicked Help, got to a web page and clicked “Personal Settings”. Then I sat and wondered what happened. Did it break? 30 seconds later, I realized there was another menu on the right. I clicked Autofill Forms. (A feature I use frequently)
First thing I did was slowly read what was there. To be fair, in comparison to other online help, this is not the worst, by a long shot. Then, I expanded all the sub-sections and read what was there. I started to become numb. Then I imagined what I wanted to see. It was very different than what I was looking at. Here is my list of the qualities that perfect online help has.
- Casual, friendly language
- Makes me think
- Makes me learn
When I read the Chrome help, I felt like there was a ton of “happy talk”. Happy talk is text that doesn’t say anything useful, but takes up space. Additionally, I felt like the lack of screenshots made it impossible for me to really connect with how/where this feature is used.
Most online help is like this because they are hard to write and maintain. However, the effort is usually worth it. When a user is in trouble, asking for help, this is the perfect time to create a positive bond with them. In other words, if you have a great help system, the product itself will seem better. You can cover up many flaws with excellent online help.
I am in the process of re-imagining the online help for the product I work on. It’s very exciting when it looks GREAT, but the effort is substantial. I truly believe that this is a chance for significant competitive advantage. It has to be great though.
Check out your own help docs. Not very good, is it?