By Rachel Potts
No-one loves it when they need to search out information so they can use an application or website. Whether it’s a knowledge base, video, integrated tooltips, online help … even the dreaded “manual” … they just want to get on with whatever it is they’re doing: writing an email, buying a sofa, or monitoring gas levels in a coal mine.
But after nearly 15 years of watching how people behave when they get stuck, how they interact with materials designed to help them, and following their emotional responses when they’re trying to get help, I’ve got good news: it doesn’t have to be an unpleasant experience. In fact, it’s actually possible to make it easy and reassuring.
You’ve probably experienced that sinking feeling yourself, as you set off to search out information that may or may not exist, knowing that even if you do find the right topic it’s quite likely to be incomprehensible to anyone without a PhD in whatever it is it’s about. Here are some key habits to get into if you want to avoid making your customers feel this way.
If there’s one practical lesson I’ve learned from years of research and usability testing it’s that the more steps your customer has to go through to find information, the more painful it’s going to feel to them … and the less likely it is that they’ll find what they need.
This was the case when printed manuals were still common, but it’s even more of a problem now everything’s online – with so many cute pictures of kittens and the trailer of that new movie you’re really excited about. You set off to find the answer to your burning question about how to animate your Powerpoint slides, and the next thing you know you’ve adopted a donkey, done your Christmas shopping and put your house on the market.
You can help your user go straight to the information they need by bringing it as close as possible to the place they get stuck. Nickelled is great for this, because it doesn’t take the user away from the website. Other ideas:
When you get this right, your users won’t even be aware that they got stuck, let alone feel like they had to look for help. It’s worth the effort, I promise.
Learning something new can be cognitively taxing; understanding a foreign language is also cognitively taxing. Imagine what you’re doing to you users when you expect them to do both at once. What’s more, if the task they’re doing relates to safety-critical decisions or spending their own money, they’re going to be particularly nervous of trusting their language skills.
But even when you’re both using English (or French, Arabic, etc.) it’s possible to not actually be speaking the same language. It’s easy to slip into habits of using words that make sense in your company but are meaningless to the rest of the world, or using complex terminology and jargon that only makes sense to your technical specialists.
You might not have noticed this, but Microsoft have been doing a lot of work on this recently, with a project to change from “robot speak” to language that actually connects with customers. It started with a small project in one corner of the company, but the results have been so successful that it’s gone company-wide. Worth keeping an eye open for next time you fire up your Xbox.
Not sure of the words your users use? Some fairly simple research at your common customer touchpoints will yield invaluable insights.
This probably sounds obvious. However, when companies first set out to create customer help and education content, they often decide to be thorough: writing about or creating videos and tutorials for every possible use-case, feature or option. This rapidly backfires. Within months there’s duplication, inconsistency, out of date content … and costs for maintaining and translating all that content escalate rapidly. In most sites, the larger volume content also makes it much harder for users to get to what they need, and more detailed information within content makes it harder for users to pick out what’s relevant.
Most of the time, there’s a relatively small number of situations where users actually get stuck. Common examples are building a mental model of the application (e.g. on first usage) and understanding the impact of selecting certain complex options. A small amount of research – for example, in your site or application analytics – will help you identify those areas and keep your effort focused where users will really benefit from it.
Are you creating printed manuals for users whose preferred way of learning is YouTube? Video tutorials for people with very limited bandwidth? Your users are going to be happier if they can learn in their preferred format, so it’s worth finding out what that is.
Similarly, some formats are better suited to certain contexts than others, whatever the users’ preference normally. A 200-step procedure for dismantling a jet engine is going to work better in a printed manual or portable hand-held device than in a video. A complex diagram of your system might be most useful if it can be printed out nicely.
When it comes to the detail of how you organise information on the page or in the video, similar decisions need to be made: is it a series of steps or a conceptual overview? Do users need some background information before they start doing? As they scroll down the page or watch the video, how will they get back to a particularly useful bit?
When I work with clients on improving self-service, we always start by looking at where users get stuck … and pretty early on we identify cases where the reason users need help is because the application or website is designed or implemented badly. Of course you can educate your users to use a complex application eventually, if they’re really determined to learn. But it’s going to be a significantly better customer experience if you just change the thing that’s confusing … and often that’s actually possible without a great deal of effort.
So, what are you going to choose for your customers when they’re stuck? Will your customer education be responsible for them tearing their hair out … or will it become part of a seamless, enlightening, brand-enhancing customer experience?
Rachel specialises in designing and improving the interfaces between customers and businesses, and between the various disciplines involved in creating and communicating about software and technology.
Over the years she’s worked years in various software and technology companies including Autonomy Systems and Red Gate Software, she has built considerable expertise in creating and managing support portals, improving findability of information, developing user-centric business processes and improving software user interfaces.
Rachel is currently in charge of at usability at 3di Information Solutionsand works as a consultant with businesses who want to transform customer experiences or reduce costs by improving the way they support and educate their users.
You can read more on this and related topics on her blog: communicationcloud.wordpress.com.
3di has been providing expertise in technical authoring and complex translation to some of the world’s largest organisations since 2002.
They provide project management, consultancy, localization engineering and recruitment services.