The UX of Online Help

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.

  • Screenshots
  • Casual, friendly language
  • Accuracy
  • Brevity
  • Clarity
  • 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?

One reply on “The UX of Online Help”

Online Help as it is is broken (and will not be fixed with the current crop of writers), because:
* It has a single app language and (every) users of a general app speaks a different (the user context) language. And I don’t mean language like English or German, but simply the names we give every item on the screen.
* Users don’t learn the app’s language as they don’t want to study to use an app. So all online help will talk to the user in a foreign language.
* Now you can’t write your help in all user languages, but the language all understand is visual demonstration. You allude to it in your request for screenshots. Even better are screencasts, moving images, that demonstrate the feature.
* You still need to be able to capture the user languages in order to make the help searchable for the users.

Have a look at my website linked, for an example of a one man attempt to create such a system. I’m convinced it is not perfect, and has many user experience flaws (which I have not the bandwith to fix as a hobby). But it is a start I think and any comments are welcome.

Whatya think?