Jan 7, 2011

Good Help Content Improves the User Experience

Though often under-appreciated, well written help documentation can improve the user experience and get people back on track when they stumble in complicated workflows.

It’s true that you can provide a better experience if you can avoid sending users off someplace else while they are hard at work, but sometimes people just need that extra boost of confidence. Your users need to know that the next step they take isn’t going to blow up their computer from the inside. It’s even better if there’s an understanding Chimp human behind that content that knows they probably don’t want to be spending time reading how-to steps anyway.

That’s why our help content writer (that’s me) is part of our User Experience team. I got my start in the support department, so it was easy to know what our growing knowledge base was lacking. When a customer asked a question we didn’t have answered in the knowledge base, we’d format our reply to the customer for the database and add the article right away.  Now through user tests and close contact with support team and our community managers we’re able to make sure our help content continues to provide a great user experience to compliment the MailChimp app.

How Should I Get Started?

  1. Cover all your major features first and make them easy to find.
  2. Create articles for new features as soon as they come out. If you follow the steps you’re writing about, this gives you another line on QA and can help locate bugs or pain points before a feature is released.
  3. Get reports from your front line service team on what the users keep asking for. Have an easy way for them to report requests, or have a specific point of contact to help gather information.
  4. Have your help content writers scan chats, tweets, or internal communications for recurring issues. Have your development team or your user experience team handle chats from time to time.
  5. Collect questions from your webinar Q&A sessions. When new features come out, sit in on your webinars and see how your team explains the features. They may have a completely different way of explaining features since they speak and you write.

These Articles are Bananas
Help content doesn’t have to be boring. It has to be clear, concise and empathetic. And sometimes there’s still room for fun.

As you’re writing each step in your help document, actually do that step in your application! This will allow you to take screenshots as you go and ensures that you don’t skip over any steps, big or small. Stick to one piece of your application at a time.

Personally, I have a pronoun habit. Get used to repeating the names of your features over and over and avoid pronouns when writing out steps. This will help your search results as well.

Get to the Point
Some articles are going to have a short, one paragraph answer and that’s ok. You don’t have to cram the article full of keywords if you handle your tags and search functions in a way that recognizes the SEO limitations of these articles.

The most common articles will require a short intro paragraph or sentence and can then be handled by numbered steps. Numbered steps are your friend. With these numbered steps, add screenshots of your process.

Show You Care



On your lighter how-to articles, be concise and helpful, but be playful when you can. Sometimes processes can be tedious and it’s good to create a not too distracting chuckle or even a slow headshake at the writer’s expense. As long as you continue to enhance the user experience rather than detract from the experience, you’re doing ok.

Figuring out how to change your timezone settings is boring. But not if you include a photo of Chimpzilla destroying a city below your timezone clocks.

On articles that address issues that are touchy or issues that you know people aren’t going to be doing a dance about, avoid the jokes and just say what you’ve got to say quickly and be as empathetic as possible. This goes for legal documents and articles about your rules and policies as well. Back when we had 50K users we could say things like "Rule #1 – don’t be a jerk." in our terms of use, but that’s not legally enforceable, so it really doesn’t belong in the TOS anymore.

We used to have a joke on an article that addressed the issue of editing sent emails. As you can imagine when we said "No you can’t change a mistake after a campaign has been sent" and then told people not to touch the oven…we may not have anticipated exactly how frustrating a mistake might be to that person’s boss and to their stress levels.

Its Ok to Be Human
It’s ok to remind your readers that you’re a real person. I had such a great time writing an article about adding captions to images that I mentioned it in the article. And yes, that really is my dog in the examples. In fact, MailChimp pets make frequent appearances in our help files. That’s the sort of human interaction that contributes to great user experience. Even if it’s "just help content" it can still be delightful.