"Help" Is a Waste of Time

My wife recently took back a cordless phone because it didn't work. She had left it in its charger over night like she was supposed to but the thing just wouldn't produce a dial tone. I looked at it briefly, pushed a few of the buttons and agreed that the thing was dead out of the box.

Back she comes with a new phone, and as I'm opening it, what do I see on the back of the phone but a large sticker with large words to the effect "Before doing anything plug in the battery!" Oops. Somehow, my wife had managed to remove the sticker on the previous phone without reading it and thus realising that this simple but essential first step was required to make the thing work.

Which just goes to show that people don't read instructions. Actually, I do, but only as a result of painful experience. By the way, I don't know what the manufacturer could have done to make their instructions any more obvious--I guess they're just screwed.

This got me to thinking about the help feature of many software and web apps. It must be hugely expensive and time-consuming to create and then virtually no one uses it.

Online search is a good example of this. Most web users don't know how to search and hence are much less effective at finding what they want than they could be. There's plenty of help available on each search engine sites about how to use the 'advanced' features, but still people are content to remain in ignorance.

For example, for our hospital site over the last three months we have the following statistics:

  • 4400 searches with no results

  • 5000+ 2nd searches

  • 4000+ 3rd searches or more

  • 36 uses of online help

People are conducting thousands of unsuccessful searches and still no one even thinks to see if they could improve the way that they search by reading the online help.

I don't really know what the answer to this is, except to say that if you're writing a software app or a web app (perhaps, for example, a somwhat complex online form) don't expect anyone to read the help that you provide to go along with it. Perhaps, better still, don't write any help at all, and spend that time on making sure that the app is as intuitive and user-friendly as possible.

Posted on: December 18, 2003 | 1 Comment

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1 Comment Posted (Add Yours)

Makes perfect sense for the average user. But I'm one of those people who will do about 8 or 9 searches till I find what I'm looking for. I doubt I would read a help file on how to get a better result in a search, but I will almost always use the help documentation to find out how to do something in a software app. One thing I do first though, is if the help has an index, I go to it first and type in a single keyword and pray that the answer I need can be found quickly.

Cliff, I'm surprised that given your tenacity when searching the web you haven't tried to advance your technique to that of a 'power searcher' (if there is such a person). By using the right Boolean operators you might reduce the number of searches you have to perform considerably (or maybe not--it's a big internet out there).

As far as using help within software apps is concerned, you are definitely one of the few. One of the main productivity problems we have at the hospital is that the vast majority of people know how to use about 10% of the functionality of MS Office apps we use.

All the information needed to become a better user of these programs is located within the help, but obviously no one ever takes the time to read it.

The frustrating this is that I'm not sure what the answer to this problem is. It's certainly not to send people on more courses, the knowledge from which is forgotten within a week.

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