We have no excuse…admit it. UX may brag about intuitive and pretty, but we sure suck at helping people—this one thing that most defines, most embodies great user experience.
Throughout history, there’s one recurring theme: people need help. For all we know, the need for assistance might have triggered the development of communication. It could have led to bonding among tribes and our existence today. In the future, it might be the only thing that staves off human extinction and promotes societal evolution.
But if so, that begs the question: why do we find it so difficult to ask for help or offer guidance to one another? Do we prefer to figure things out for ourselves? Are we afraid that any request for assistance would be fraught with obligations to reciprocate? Are we worried that we’ll be rejected? Or that we might not get the help we need?
People do need help. It’s a given—and a problem in the field of UX. We claim to do so much for users, but treat help as an afterthought. How come it isn’t our primary consideration?
A glance at most websites, including those for large and small organizations, suggests that user assistance is treated as a cursory option—often relegated to a question mark symbol tacked onto a corner. The assumptions are:
- Users won’t need help; the design is intuitive.
- If users do want help, they’ll look for it (somewhere).
- Once users figure out where to look, they’ll seek help when they need it.
If the same scenario were layered on real-world interactions, it would be analogous to visiting a large museum, with maps, tours, guides, and program schedules hidden in a locker at some end far off the main entrance.
Why offer help before it’s requested?#section2
Taking the guesswork out of a customer’s experience is beneficial to all involved.
Consider that you’re walking into a new casual diner. Initially you may wonder if everything is self-service, and if you are expected to clear your own table. You could just stare at folks around the room and make your move based on what other diners are doing. Or, the franchisee could help you get up to speed right away. Ikea solves the what-do-I-do problem with a “Why should I clear my own table?” sign right at the center of its popular store restaurant. The sign solves two problems—it gives the customer needed information immediately and it promotes Ikea’s aim to cut costs.
Designers create user interfaces through careful planning, so one popular conclusion is that if a design has been a success, no explanation—no prominent sign—is required.
But help is often sought or needed for a variety of reasons. Help could be required to explain certain fields in a form, to define the meaning of a specific icon, to parse highly technical terms, to identify new features, to illuminate hidden gestures, or to detail policies that are obtuse.
A user may immediately understand that a pencil icon opens an editing pop-up. If he doesn’t, he may well figure it out eventually but only after moments wasted in confusion.
No matter how smart a design is, unless it is customized to every user’s personality, needs, working conditions, device, domain knowledge, technical expertise, and mood, it will need some explaining. A good designer empathizes with unique concerns and takes users as they are, from practiced online mavens to casual browsers. A good design includes user assistance that is given due consideration.
When help goes wrong#section3
Sometimes websites do make dedicated attempts to help. And sometimes those attempts smack of overkill.
There are video tours expertly created to take users through each feature in the product. There are slideshows with custom fonts and colorful characters that highlight everything new and promising in the release. There are translucent overlays of clever pointers to indicate where useful action commands are located.
Analytics and studies show that when presented with any of the above on launch of an application, a user either:
- Rushes through it with no interest in its content, or
- Closes it.
The main issue with providing informational assistance as the first screen is that users do not care yet. They have not seen enough of the product to want to learn about its intricacies.
Users want to get to the product as soon as possible; they’ve already read the marketing material, gone through the registration process, perhaps even read the “Terms and Conditions.” They do not want anything else to lengthen the delay. If forced to read through preliminary content or go through tours, they do so while disengaged and hence, promptly forget all they learned.
Some applications have book-length help manuals. Immense thought and work goes into writing and creating these documents. But they exist in a separate world, removed from the application itself, expecting the user to click away from her task at hand to read and learn. Often, they are poorly designed, making the process of finding information in the “help” website a chore.
Can help intrude?#section4
Handholding, intrusive help is as frowned upon in the design world as lack of intuitiveness. Examples of this include forcing open an overlay with offers of help while the user is engaged in a task; loading screens full of product descriptions without context; or launching a product tour that must be completed before the user can access the product. This is where the need to understand the goals of the application comes in.
Is this an enterprise application with cloud-based storage, multiple server connections, and sensitive data transfers? In that case, help should become a visible priority. What if it’s an app built with a strong gamification approach? In that case, help can probably take a passive backseat.
Consider user behavior patterns while designing the help function. Some users prefer an uninterrupted reading experience—they like to dive deep into the subject matter, read every instruction, perhaps even download the content for offline reading. They rely on in-depth topic descriptions. On the other end of the spectrum, some users prefer to scan the text. They only seek help after they’ve made a mistake and will rarely go to a dedicated off-context help website. Short bites of support within the application work best for them.
Instructions offered in a non-intrusive manner can enhance an experience, whether real or virtual. Hiking on a trail with clear path markers, distance indicators, wildlife cautions, and plant and foliage descriptions would be safe and informative and hence, helpful. The “x minute read” tag in Medium posts, the Slackbot messenger in Slack, and the delineations of simple steps in Google Apps Learning Center are all examples of help offered to users without distracting fanfare.
How to help#section5
Simply ensuring your user assistance function is visible can be enough to provide comfort. In the same way a good interface doesn’t make users think too hard, a good help function should be easy to find and access.
Help can be designed to be contextual or stand-alone (a mix of both works best).
Contextual help is any form of user assistance that is embedded within the product’s screens. It prevents disruption from user’s immediate focus. It is concise and quick to read and access. It is available when the user requests or—even better—expects it.
A few examples:
- Tooltips that appear on hover indicating the name of an icon or button.
- Info-tips that open after clicking an “i” or “?” next to a form or field or any part of UI worth explaining. These should have brief content that explains the purpose/meaning of the relevant element.
- Ghost text that appears within a text field or next to the UI element to help users learn about the element.
- A panel that functions an an overlay within the product screen, providing users with more detailed help information.
- Quick “Getting Started” guides that merge with the interface and take users through the actions flow.
- Tooltips indicating feature upgrades within the UI.
- Hint text that demonstrates search protocols—such as suggested keywords that actually work in the application.
Stand-alone help can take a more detailed approach.
Designing the help center for an application is usually a challenge. Should information architecture match the application’s architecture? How will users approach the content? Would they want every action and interface element documented? If so, how should the content be structured for easy perusal? If they don’t, how do writers prioritize topics? How much is too much?
Effective search functionality can help save users from getting lost in content; a prominent search box makes it simple to locate the right topic before users get overwhelmed. And if the application’s search option is internet friendly, it will appeal even more to those users who prefer using a “real” search engine (like Google or Bing).
Documentation categorized by features or tasks allows users to filter more quickly. It is also important to identify which information warrants greater visibility—help users solve their most pressing concerns, and quickly. Customer feedback, analytics, and user research can help determine which topics your users are looking for most.
The myth of technical proficiency#section6
Enterprise applications as well as consumer applications can benefit from a well thought out help system. It’s poor logic to say that an interface is designed for “technically proficient” users who therefore won’t need any help.
A well-designed help function is more than a set of instructions in an emergency. It is thoughtful, approachable, and considerate. It knows that no quest for assistance is too small, no needed explanation is too big. It’s time we uprooted the precedents of cumbersome or “barely there” help functions. It is time to make Help helpful.
After all, needing help is part of the human condition.
28 Reader Comments
I like where you were going with this, but it bothers me that the help examples are not, generally speaking, very accessible, and several may be problematic in responsive contexts.
Tim, thanks for reading the article and for bringing this point up. I agree that actions such as hover or click do not allow for all types of devices. These examples were meant to show ways websites have addressed the paucity of help online. You are right – while designing “help” for a project, we would need to not only look at its audience, goals and scope but also its platforms.
I like how you touched on the human element here. Few things are more frustrating than feeling helpless while using an interface and not having any place to turn for help!
Thanks so much Kyle! In deed help is one of those things we realize we need everyday while using one app or another but lack of its ready availability has made us consider this the norm.
This is a good read. One thing I find really helpful is having a chat option available. That saves a lot of time and also increases the human interaction. Another useful feature in one of the applications I use is short videos. These are always there in case you need it, but you’re not forced to go through these. As you delve into the product, you can use these videos.
Thank you Bansal! You are right about chat – it adds in the human interaction element and makes help so much more accessible. Videos are great too, when to-the-point. As soon as we realize help is an important aspect of products and design for it, we become better advocates for users.
My old website had major UX problems so I had to get a new one. What’s crazy is after I updated the site’s UX, I got about 10 more leads/week so yeah, I completely agree that if your UX isnt good, people aren’t going to go out of their way to seek out help. They’re just going to leave the site.
The main problem with UX is that it’s difficult to fine tune and balance out between the best UX you can deliver and a website where you get your point across.
When it comes to UX, I always feel that less is always more since these days most users visit websites on a tablet from a personal experience and accessibility without any responsive conversions on a website just screams a nightmare for the average John Doe.
This is a really great perspective. As a former technical writer, I would often hear well-meaning UX-ers say that help should never be needed, if the interface was well designed. I like how you explain why help is always necessary.
As a user, one of my biggest problems with contextual help is when it’s present, but it doesn’t answer my biggest questions. That’s where user testing can really give us valuable insights about how to design truly useful help. Thanks!
When it comes to design I think neglect of actual “help” questions breeds stagnancy. When designers become to reliant on trends and themes they stop asking the simple, important questions that improve design.
Great job articulating the subtle difference between contextual help and stand-alone help, and the need for the integration of both.
Thanks so much Melanie! Working with technical writers, I see the work put in to explain the nuances of the software and its UI. When such well defined help documentation is surfaced in useful and meaningful ways, users gain tremendously. I agree that user testing will help fine tune the context and goals of help.
Thank you for reading @DFW and for sharing the useful help-based form submission on your site!
Thanks Sage! Very glad you liked it.
I really like how you break this down and make it more user friendly and tailor it more towards the users experience instead of what you think is best. At the end of the day you want people to like your content and have an easy to navigate space.
Thought-provoking article! I especially love your perspective on contextual help. After much reflection, I must offer this addendum: help is a temporary part of the human condition. We are born needing help, but then we grow up. We are all learners, and we bring our experiences from other places (and other software) to the new software we are using. If you love your users, at some point you must set them free!
We should never ignore help and ensure it is available when (and where) it is requested, but there is value in striving toward an interface that doesn’t require help because it leverages users’ existing knowledge of other interfaces and empowers them to proceed through potentially unknown tasks in a familiar and predictable way, or multiple ways. For example: we can strive for more thoughtful and accommodating interfaces that respect user input in all its forms, rather than listing the required date format near the text field.
In the United States, the concept of self-reliance runs strong in our culture from the time of Emerson and the transcendentalists. We also had the pioneer spirit that had our ancestors cross the ocean, settle the continent, and travel to the moon. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Onward and upward (and maybe sideways too, to bring others along for the journey)!
One of my favorite sections on a website is the frequently asked questions or FAQ. Most people know what questions their visitors are going to ask, and by already answering it, it makes it more of a user friendly environment overall and keeps people on the website. Great write up man, I’ll check back in for your future work!
As a designer, i’m totally agreed with everything it says. Even if sometimes it seems to be impossible, just hold on your idea or wish and keep working hard!
I understand the need of help to the whole audience, that’s why me and my team focused the development of our page totally to the user standards. Also our content is always focused on do the best for the personal understanding of the audience. But in the country I’m living in right now the people are way too lazy and sometimes even ask for help to the most meaningless tasks. Since I work with personal development I encourage them to self-help and only seek me as the last resort. Also I found out recently, by a Q&A system, many users have been progressing personaly from lazy to proactive persons.
I totally agree. After redesigning our website early 2016 we have seen improvement in user experience and conversion rates.
I totally agree! After redesigning our website in early 2016 we have seen a huge improvement in user experience and conversion rates.
“Just because nobody complains doesn’t mean all parachutes are perfect.” Benny Hill 😉
Very interesting article, we recently (in the last 2 days) ran a usability study for Cuetips on our mobile platform. 8 participants completely ignored the help feature.
When prompted to see it, they accepted that they had ignored the feature (we had 2 versions with high contrast colours and animation) and felt the feature is very useful for novice users. They didnt seem to see themselves as people who need help going through the UI even if the cuetip was about a feature they need but aren’t aware of using.
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“Taking the guesswork out of a customer’s experience is beneficial to all involved”
Obviously correct – However bad guess hurts!!
You make a lot of great points to think about when designing websites. We will keep all of this in mind when doing web design for our clients.
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