Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Help doesn't. (Rolf Molich)

Poor help. It just doesn’t get any respect. 

Whenever I run a test and the user seems ready to give up on a particular task, I always ask what they “would do now.” Most of the time, they say they would call. Some would prefer to chat, something that seems to be a lot more popular these days than in the past. And some, of course, simply want to abandon the task altogether, shut down their device, and make themselves a nice, stiff drink.

What people rarely mention is help. And that’s a shame, because they often have a decent chance of finding an answer there.

But people have also been trained to avoid help like the plague. There was a time – and there are still many systems that follow this model – where help was a completely separate system, identified only by a little help link in the upper right-hand corner.

When users clicked on that link, another window typically covered their screen. From there, they would search or browse for their particular question. So, in other words, total task interruption, major mode switching, and lots of time spent basically starting over from scratch. No wonder people shy away from help.

Given all that, how can we get people to use help again? First, don’t call it help. Second, get it out of the right hand corner of the screen. Interestingly, those two ideas are intimately related. Let me explain …

So, if you take help out of the upper right-hand corner, where are you going to put it? Well, one idea is to make it contextual, to put it on the page itself.  Face it, users typically want to get help on something they’re doing right now. They want to know what to put in that field. They want to know what button to choose. So, why not tell them then and there?

And, if you are doing that, why not go ahead and be more specific about what that help is going to be. Instead of putting “help” next to the field, why not just say, “What can I enter here?” or “Is this secure?” or whatever you think the user’s question might actually be.

A variation on this treatment is FAQs. And these are basically just all the questions the user might have on that particular page, but listed all together. Over the last few years, I’ve found FAQs have tested particularly well.

Context-sensitive and specific is definitely the way to go. Not only may they get the user to actually click on them, but they also might actually help the user as well.


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