Top 10 things that users want to do in a help system

Truly helpful help systems are more than a set of instructions and information. They offer a constructive, pleasant user experience that make users happy and efficient. Which makes help systems comparable to libraries or department stores…

David Weinberger has an interesting analogy how information systems in general are like – and unlike – retail stores in the beginning of his book Everything is Miscellaneous. You can read the prologue and chapter 1 online.

Here are 10 things that users want to do in a help system – or a library or a department store… Some of them are kind of obvious, but I think it helps to consider all of them and how they relate to functions and options in a help system. Which ones you want to offer depends on your users, your product and your tech writing resources.

1. Search

I know exactly what I’m looking for.

Offer useful search results. Duh…

2. Find (and find again)

I know it should be here somewhere. I swear I’ve seen it last time!

Offer filter options to narrow down search results by topic type, task type, persona, etc., so users don’t have to guess how your topics are structured or how to rephrase their search. Allow users to save search result lists and to bookmark favorite topics.

A good discussion how users search and find in different ways is in Morville’s and Rosenfeld’s book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, chapter 3 “User Needs and Behaviors”.

3. Know their way

I know where it is… – Now how did I get here? How do I get back?

Offer navigation aids such as a table of contents, browsing sequences and breadcrumb trails, so users can

  • Explore topics in context,
  • Look up their current location in the system,
  • Backtrack their steps.

4. Browse (as in “shopping”)

I’ll know what I want when I see it.

Offer tags that describe and group topics, so users can quickly get to the right section and dive in.

5. Get advice

I don’t know what I need. This is all new to me.

Recommend tutorials, best practices, what’s new, tips & tricks to guide novice users – and visitors who wonder about the learning curve of your product.

6. Recognize items

What is this thing? What does it do? The box doesn’t say.

Offer clear and, if possible, unique topic headings so users are confident they’re looking at the appropriate item.

7. Compare

This isn’t quite what I’m looking for… Do you have something similar?

Offer a selection of related topics.

8. Ask a human

What does this mean? I don’t understand this. This doesn’t seem to work!?

Offer options to send an e-mail, or a request for service, callback or chat to your company.

9. Share

This is cool! Here’s my comment. My friend/colleague should see this!

Offer ways for users to submit feedback, comments, ratings. Allow users to e-mail or tweet a topic.

10. Take stuff home

I’ll take this!

Allow users to print or make a PDF of one or several topics.

Your turn

Which use cases do you find essential? Have I missed any? Or could you do without most of them as long as your search rocks?