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?

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5 Responses

  1. You should promote this, by singing this song:

    Title: Wannabe (good documentation) by the Spice Girls

    If you want my future, I’ll forget your past,
    If you wanna get me to read, better make it fast,
    Now don’t go wasting my precious time,
    On documentation that’s not so fine.

    I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want,
    So tell me what you want, what you really really want,
    I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really
    really really wanna use the software, ha.

    If you wanna be my vendor, you gotta get with my friends,
    No. 1 is search, that’s where it starts and ends,
    If you wanna be my vendor, you have got to give,
    No. 2 is search filtering, and that’s the way it is.

    What do you think about that now you know how I feel,
    Say you can handle TOCs, No. 3 in this spiel,
    I won’t be hasty, I’ll give you a try
    But don’t give me No. 4 browsing, then I’ll say goodbye.

    Yo I’ll tell you what I want, what I really really want,
    So tell me what you want, what you really really want,
    I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I wanna really
    really really wanna use the software ha.

    If you wanna be my vendor, you gotta get with my friends,
    No. 5 is learning stuff, with all the latest trends,
    If you wanna be my vendor, you have got to give,
    No. 6 is clarity, and that’s the way it is.

    If you wanna be my vendor, you gotta, you gotta, you gotta,
    you gotta, you gotta, search, search, search, search
    Slam your KS down and wind it all around.
    Slam your KS down and wind it all around.
    Slam your KS down and wind it all around.
    Slam your KS down zigazig ah
    If you wanna be my vendor.

    Copyright. All rights reserved.

    • Thanks, Daniel – I’m flattered! Though I had to look up the Spice Girls song to know what it sounds like. 🙂

      I think this “revision” ranks right up there with “Technical (a/k/a Paperback) Writer“!

    • Daniel, your version of this song IS AMAZING!!! Thank you for brightening my day with your talent!

      and Kai, I’m going to try to slide a copy of your blog post in my boss’ pile of mail

      thank you both!
      Claudia

  2. Great list, Kai! Just yesterday I was talking with Steve Bjorg, CTO at MindTouch about our reliance on search. It’s second nature to me for most all sites, whether I’m troubleshooting or just learning. But his scenario was for a new user who might not know the right term to search. I’ve been in those shoes before. With the aglets on my shoelaces. Who would know to search for aglet for information about those plastic tips on shoelaces? You’ve nailed it with the top three.

    And as far as Get Advice goes, I’ve been thinking about how people like getting advice from others – can we integrate that into the help system’s user experience? I just had a blog commenter specifically request to talk to someone with a level of experience with a product – they were directed to a forum (which is a community) – and I’ve seen few examples of that integration working well with help systems. It’s possible but not done often and not always a great user experience. Plenty of work to be done.

    This post itself is an example of how much comments can enhance content – love it. Great job.

    • Thanks, Anne! Yes, it’s especially novice users who need more than just a really good search function to get started. I guess that’s why we see a lot more “getting started” guides than “being really good at this already” guides… 🙂

      Oh, and I plum forgot about getting advice from other users – even though it’s in the Groundswell book that I’ve previously referred to. Thanks for reminding me of it!

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