"The goal of the HELP System should not be to teach users about a system's capabilities and functions, but rather to provide quick and immediate access to information about a specific task, command, or message. In other words, HELP should refresh or remind the memory of what it already knows." Dorazio (Horton, 1990)
As a rule of thumb, users want to know: what is happening, why it is happening and what effect it has on their actions and the systems actions. They want to have the option to cancel and the option to change what is happening. They want to have the power to control their experience of the product.
"I can't find what I'm looking for in Help"
Two of the biggest attitudes traditionally borrowed from software development to deal with usability issues include strategies for Help Systems and Error handling. Having observed thousands of hours of usability testing sessions, we have developed an in house joke: Help Doesn't. The following examples are so common place, it leads us to suggest addressing systemic problems instead of wasting time and money on Help Systems.
Case study 1: At a usability test several weeks ago a man considering himself an intermediate user looking for website "help" closed his browser to use "find" in the Windows start menu!
Case study 2: When looking for website "help" several users in the same test of a complex website clicked on the Browser "help" button!
Case study 3: Case studies 1 & 2 have happened repeatedly during usability tests, you really need to see this to believe it!
Another example. Supposed you are booking a flight for a quick business trip. You find the flight and quickly fill in the form and hit submit and get something like this:
So you hit the Browser back button and go to the page to fix the problem. Can you see what the problem is? (address and email blanked out to remove personal details).
Did you see what was missing? I sure didn't at first. (Go back up to the first image and try to notice the fine print).
A special note to the people who did see it immediately:
You are proabably focusing on that particular problem presented to you. In real life you may have been moving much more quickly and not paying full attention given the flow of the task of searching, comparing, checking calendars, dates, selecting, loggin-in and then transacting.
This silly type of design mistake is becoming more extinct having been replaced with "required" information markings. But there are many silly design mistakes that we still notice even on the biggest websites out there.
Embedding help into the user experience so users don't even notice it
When we talk about help not working or error prevention being missed (as in the above example) we typically recommend two types of solutions:
1) Follow best practice with help and error prevention and 2) Prevent the need for help in the first place.
1) Follow best practice with help and error messages
- Pro-active error messages (state what happened, what to do about it, and how to do it)
- Confirmation messages (let users know what just happened for major actions)
- Provide simple and straight forward explanations of what people can expect from your site (not domain jargon or "marketing fluff")
- Offer "context-sensitive" help (Help found along the way specific to the task)
2) Prevent the need for help in the first place
- Clear layout of controls (controls that are not hidden or scrollable)
- Clear information about how to contact the company or get tech support
- Consistent navigation placement and consistent action of controls
- Organize the site based on user's expectations, not the companies internal way of thinking
Following these suggestions can increase your success rate dramatically. We had a client once who increased sales by 400% just by putting a buy button above the [browser] "fold"!
Even more powerful try putting this poster on your wall "There are No User Errors, Only Designer Errors"!
Download the free poster  (168KB PDF)