Online Help! I don’t want to read a book!

user guidesUnderstanding how we search for user assistance and how technical authors must adapt their writing style to reflect today’s user.

Recently I found myself in a DIY pickle. How do I successfully fix a floating shelf to a stud wall? My Dad was on holiday! Anyway, he prefers freestanding furniture. So who do I ask?

The dilemma of today’s technical author is that users need help but they also need to find help. Traditionally we solved this by writing a manual. When they had a question users picked up the perfectly indexed manual with its table of contents and would find the answer. With my DIY problem I would need to find out who has written the manual on putting up shelves, covering all the possible shelf and wall combinations and then find the right solution. One of Nick Knowle’s DIY SOS team has probably written a book on this but I haven’t got the time to wait for it to be delivered by Amazon, I want that shelf up today!


So, how does today’s user find help? All together now, ‘we Google it!’. This is where user assistance needs to be; on the Web.

‘Don’t expect your users to change their information seeking habits just for your documentation’

In his book, ‘Every Page is Page One’, Mark Baker makes an interesting observation. If your user cannot find documentation on how to use your product on the Web they will assume the product must be hard to use.

Today’s user doesn’t just look for information in a different place; they search for it in a different way. So what do I Google to find my answer? I don’t need to know how to put up all types of shelf in all situations, so I add my own filters to my search. Instead of searching for ‘wall fixings’ or ‘putting up shelves’ I search for ‘how to fix a floating shelf to a stud wall’. I can name my search, I am not categorising it in a neat way that may or may not be listed in a table of contents.

This is where technical authors need to change. Searching online often means searching from the bottom-up rather than the top-down. I look for the answer to a specific question rather than open the manual go to the table of contents and look for related information.

We must remember that top-down navigation is still in use. For example, some users will arrive at your website from the home page and need to be able to navigate to the information they need. We need to accommodate both types of navigation as much as possible. Using lists in your home page is one way we can help users to navigate from the top-down.

Links help keep your readers within your documentation rather than start searching elsewhere for the answer

By following Mark Baker’s ‘Every Page is Page One’ writing technique we start to see each page of documentation as a hub and can influence where the reader goes next for information. Links from one page to another within your guide helps to keep your readers within your documentation, rather than tempting them to start searching elsewhere for the answer.

Links can also help expand user knowledge of a subject that they want to explore more. Whilst online users can connect with other users and share their experiences. Users can start to collate their own documentation which answers their questions. I now have a Pinterest board for ‘Floating Shelf Solutions’ and subscribe to the Screwfix You Tube channel.

‘A complete meal for a hungry information seeker’

So I have searched ‘how to fix a floating shelf to a stud wall’ and I want to follow the right procedures to get the job done. The information I want to see should be the closest fit to achieving the task in hand. I don’t just want to find out which fixings to use in a stud wall or, conversely, start reading the complete guide to DIY.

Ideally, I find a solution which reflects my DIY pickle exactly, the ‘complete meal’. The page (or in my case You Tube video) I select must have a purpose and be written in context. My problem is described and how I go about putting up the shelf is given in step by step instructions. In addition, reasons are given for ensuring that drilled holes are kept level. I can also follow links to other pages which give advice on selecting the right drill bit for the job.

‘More like a bus service than a taxi service’

In reality the perfect guide for my DIY pickle might not exist. Some products and situations have too many variables to offer a personalised guide for each user’s specific need. As technical authors we must write general topics that serve the purpose of many users and help them to make the right decisions.

Documentation must not just list procedures because these procedures might not always be exactly what the user is after. We are providing a closest fit bus ride, taking them to their destination rather a door to door taxi service.

No one reads the documentation anyway

Documentation will be read if it’s online because the majority of people default to a Google search when they have a question.

To conclude for today’s user, technical authors must make the following adjustments:

  • Take ownership and control of what is online by getting your user assistance online.
  • Make your user assistance purposeful; give users a reason for using the page.
  • Keep your end users attention; link to associated pages. Don’t give the user a reason for searching elsewhere for information.

As for my DIY pickle, in theory I will soon be an expert on putting up floating shelves but I’m still procrastinating about the actual DIY!

Further reading:

Mark Baker, Every Page is Page One. California: XML Press, 2013.

Online Help! I don’t want to read a book!

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