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ESTABLISHED 1999

How to write a Help page – that is genuinely helpful

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How to write a Help page – that is genuinely helpful

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Now, we’re not going to name names here, but we recently came across a Help page on a website that began “Is funding available?”. The answer was no. “Are there any grants?” Again, no. We couldn’t help feeling that we’d stumbled across a curmudgeonly corner of the web.

The rest of the page was a kind of brain-dump of several links and pieces of information which, while unarguably useful to those who need it, was rather hard to wade through.

I can understand the approach. If the fact that this body does not provide funding or grants is the number one question they answer most often, and which wastes most of their time, of course, they want to make that information prominent. Equally, it allows those who do need funding to spend only two seconds on the page before looking elsewhere for what they need.

But there are better ways to organize a Help page – ways that will enhance your business’ image as well as being genuinely useful to your users.

The first thing to do is to step outside the mindset of your own office. You already know everything about your product or business: of course, you do. Unfortunately, the human brain is often ill-equipped to view things outside its own experience: if you know what all those acronyms stand for, it’s all too easy to assume that everyone does.

So, how best to find out what your users need to know? There are a few ways. You could check your site’s Search log for queries such as “meaning of xxx”, or even to find if folk continually search for a product you do not provide, or which is hard to find on your site. Search gives valuable clues to what your website does not make clear.

Then, speak to your response staff. Whether they are replying to emails or answering the phone, they are in daily contact with your customer and know best what they need.

Finally, it’s always worth conducting user testing. There are companies that will do this for you, and provide a report on what users found most perplexing. If that is too expensive, observing just a small sample of users attempting to conduct simple tasks on your website will teach you a lot.

Once you know what needs to be answered on your Help page, group your replies by topic and give them clear headings. If there is a lot of information, break it up and provide sub-navigation. Make sure the titles you give each section are genuinely helpful – and if you are not sure, user-test again. Finally, make sure that the pertinent Help results come up in a site search.

Help pages can be crucial to a website’s success: they can calm frustrated users, and act as an index for lazy surfers. They are worth putting a lot of time and effort into. On the other hand, they can also be seen as an admission of failure: a perfect site would not need one. The question is, how many of us can say we have the perfect site?!