Making Help Helpful: Reviewing Popular Help Features in an Age of Self-Service

September 7, 2017 6:17 pm

Making Help Helpful: Reviewing Popular Help Features in an Age of Self-Service



Help features are typically only used as a last resort. Whether it be an electronic appliance or a web application, most users will not read instructions until they feel stuck, and even then they might not. There are two key reasons for this:

  • Firstly, due to prior experience users often regard help as unhelpful. Masses of text and pages of irrelevant FAQs have led them to simply ignore it.
  • Secondly, as usability continues to improve, users are learning to rely on their own intuition. They expect to be able to self-serve and navigate through a website themselves, so requesting help seems to have become associated with ego depletion.

You might wonder if that makes help features redundant, but we know that users still need help. So the challenge is finding a better way, or ways, of providing it. In this article, we will discuss the helpfulness of some familiar help features from the perspective of how the user gets the help – is it pushed towards them or do they need to seek it out and pull it for themselves? We call this Push and Pull help:

  • Push Help typically involves embedding help into particular sticking points of a user journey. For example, Onboarding and Tooltips.
  • Pull Help is more informational, and requires users to self-serve and access information from easy-to-find help sources. This may include Help Centres and FAQs.

Push Help

Walkthroughs and Guided Tours

Push help provides users with the relevant support to overcome an immediate technical hurdle within their journey. For example, walkthroughs and guided tours are a form of push help often occurring during the onboarding process or within an area of an interface requiring extra assistance. A good example of this can be seen in Twitter’s onboarding screens demonstrated below in Figure 1. Here, Twitter walks its users through some of the key usability functions to assist the user after first creating an account. Similar walkthroughs are also common throughout user journeys, providing contextual help when a user may require extra guidance.

Figure 1: Twitter onboarding

Whilst walkthroughs act as an intuitive and easy to use form of embedded help for both first-time and non-technical users, they also have a prominent shortfall. By interrupting the user’s journey and potentially slowing them down, such features are frequently ignored by users who prefer to be able to get started and navigate through the page for themselves.

Pop-Up Windows

A second example of Push help are pop-up windows which typically appear when a user is mid-way through their journey on a site. This feature is used to prompt the user if they seem to be lost, or encourage them to engage with a live chat for further assistance. An example of this is provided by EE in Figure 2 and 3, where the user is prompted to engage firstly with an interactive guide to find an ‘ideal phone and plan’ and then an online chat facility.

An advantage of pop-up windows is that they are contextual as their content is typically directly related to the main page content or is triggered by user’s actions. However, as an intrusive help feature, they directly disturb the user’s workflow and so are often ignored. Advanced users typically skip over the instructions as they assume they know how to use interfaces, whilst novice users may ignore instructions in the hope that the defaults will be adequate.  The fact that the user has to actively close the window to continue with their journey means that this feature is often thought to be more irritating than it is useful.

Figure 2: EE interactive guide pop up

Figure 3: EE pop up chat window

Online Forms

However, it is not all negative as Push help can be effective when used well. For example, the use of contextual help when completing online forms is something that has been heavily researched and so is often implemented with success. A common feature in this instance are Tooltips which provide users with information regarding unfamiliar objects or fields which aren’t directly described in the user interface. This can be exemplified in Figure 4, where the registration form from Post Office provides user-activated tooltips iconised by a question mark. By selecting or hovering over this icon, extra information can be retrieved when needed, otherwise the information remains hidden, therefore minimising on-screen text.

Figure 4: Post Office online forms and tool tips

However, given that tooltips of this form must be self-activated, this feature creates more work for the user and often goes unnoticed. Instead, if users are likely to require the information to complete the form, it may be worth adopting a more responsive approach. For example, the tooltips used by Google in Figure 5 appear as soon as the user interacts with the field, therefore drawing attention and encouraging interaction to enhance form completion.

Figure 5: Google online forms and tooltips

An alternative type of Push help used regularly for online forms is embedded inline help text. As used by the DVLA in Figure 6 and as a standardised approach across all GOV.UK websites, the text under the heading for each field provides users with informative descriptions. Although this method is space dependent, providing help text for the user is possibly the most effective form of assistance in that it provides the user with clear instructions to complete the form with no further action required.

Figure 6: DVLA online forms and prompts

Pull Help

Moving on to informational help features; this section will consider help that is pulled by the user to provide an overview of a process or a step-by-step guide. Whilst this section will consider some of the best practices for informational help, this is an awfully big topic, and so all of which will not be covered here.

Help Pages

Pull help is often found in the form of a separate help page which simply lists solutions for every error the user may face. Help sections can be made more usable by including walkthroughs, an embedded chat, or placing it into a section on your site where users face the most problems.

For example, O2’s Help and Support page shown in Figure 7 can be accessed at any point in the user journey via the sticky navigation bar appearing at the top of the page. Once within the page the content appears in a hierarchical structure, and popular help topics are organised by clear and relevant sections. In providing features such as a search bar, demonstration videos and a live chat facility, O2 provide numerous ways for the user to address their queries.

Figure 7: O2 help and support centre

Searchable Help Content

In contrast, rather than listing the available help content, websites may choose to structure their informational help pages around a search bar. A good example of this can be seen in Figure 8 by HSBC. As the user types their help topic into the search bar, effective search suggestions begin to direct them towards relevant help sections and related FAQs can also be found in the panel on the right. In contrast, Sainsbury’s searchable help page shown in Figure 9 is less effective in directing users to relevant help pages. Although the search bar provides search suggestions, often the results provided are not appropriate, therefore preventing the user from accessing the help that is needed.

Figure 8: HSBC searchable help pages

Figure 9: Sainsbury searchable help pages

Quick Help

An alternative to the traditional help centres can be exemplified by Facebook in Figure 10. Here, Facebook have formed a contextual ‘Quick Help’ section in the form of an overlay window. This can be accessed from the sticky navigation bar during any point in the user journey and provides help options directly related to the current page. In the example below the Quick help has been activated whilst on a Closed Group page, and the suggested help options available are directly associated with this type of page.

Unlike traditional help pages Facebook’s adaptive ‘Quick Help’ offers contextual help which does not require navigation away from the current page. This help option therefore provides a good medium between push help which often disrupts the user’s journey, and informational help pages which users have to pull and search through themselves.

Figure 10: Facebook quick help

The Take Away

Overall, whilst user-centric methods of ‘push’ help are perhaps the preferred method of assistance as users are not required to abandon their journey, informational help which is pulled by the user is still important in providing an overview of a process or a step-by-step guide. In fact, using a combination of these approaches will allow your interface to meet and exceed the needs of the user across different contexts.

To ensure assistance is truly helpful there are certainly some key things to remember which apply to all types of help features:

  • Help should be time-saving
  • It should be unobtrusive
  • And most importantly, features should be relevant and actionable

Although there is no direct answer as to what type of assistance will work best for your interface, the above recommendations alongside dedicated analysis, design and testing, will help to shape appropriate help content for your users.