Imagine a giant net under a trapeze rig, ready to cushion a flyer if he or she falls.
Without the net, would the trapeze artist have the courage to fly at all? Or would they bail out entirely?
Now imagine your company’s help content as that safety net.
Whether or not it’s needed or ever used, many users (and businesses) evaluate help during their product purchase decision. If there’s evidence of good user assistance, it can help to sell your brand. Conversely, the absence of good help could damage your brand and hurt your bottom line.
With all that in mind, here are a few proven ways for content and support teams to create high quality help and build rapport with their customers.
How to create help content that is useful?
The job of a help author is to make the complex topics simple: to structure high and low-level information in a way that’s easy to discover and digest.
Practically speaking, if you can explain concepts in plain language with task-based steps, you’re on the road to developing good help. If the task is a process that involves more than a handful of steps, it’s best to break the task into smaller chunks of tasks.
Include a high-level process overview at the top of each topic to explain how the sets of tasks function in the larger process. At that point, users can identify which part of the process they’re stuck on or interested in and navigate to the low-level information they need. As the writer, this activity of outlining the process is helpful, too, because it uncovers gaps or holes you may have in your task-based documentation.
1. Provide a clear path for the user, even when one doesn’t exist.
Linear processes are easier to follow than non-linear ones, and I believe that users who have sought out help want to be led. When a technical communicator documents a process or function well, they provide a happy path for the user to follow.
With that in mind, even if you can technically execute functions A through D in any order, try to turn functions into progressive tasks. Do that, and you lead your users through an efficient workflow and resolve questions about order and dependency. Since you’ve made a bunch of decisions for them, it will make them more successful, faster.
2. Choose user-driven language
Generally speaking, be concise and write with an active voice. Use words and phrases that users search for, not terms a developer used to describe the thing to you.
Remember your audience. If you have data to help you understand how your audience talks about your product, then use that to inform your decisions about terminology.
Even if your product is complex and technical, your help doesn’t need to be. Break it down, and decode it for your readers. Use conversational and controlled language. They’ll appreciate it.
To learn more about how to write in the active voice, check out this writing resource published by Duke University.
3. Optimize for search engines
Good help content shows up when and where you search for it. Sometimes that means in a product, and other times that means on the web.
If your users open Google to search for answers, you want them to find your help since you’re the authority (or, you’d like to be).
If they open an internal site search, you still want the right article to come to the top of the results. That means you have to pay attention to how search engines catalog and rank pages, and write your help articles with that in mind.
Whether your output is a PDF or a webpage, there are things you can do to optimize your pages for search.
4. Cross-reference related articles and resources
If your topic has related support articles, blog posts, or tutorials, it’s a good idea to cross-reference them on your page.
Often these other resources will approach the subject matter in a slightly different way, or provide a more technical or instructive perspective, which could help a user be successful.
5. Thoughtfully include visuals to support and supplement text
Finally, even though there are dozens of other things I could discuss about good help, I want to touch on visuals. Images and video can improve help articles, but bad visuals can definitely turn good help bad. I do recommend the use of visuals in documentation as a means of reinforcing and supplementing written content. However, keep in mind that if you do incorporate images, videos, or animated GIFs in your help, you should maintain consistency in your formatting and styling to keep things scannable, organized, and easy to digest. Visuals should add clarity, not create more questions.
So whether you’re on a customer support team, a content marketer, or someone in between, these tips will will help you produce help content that makes more successful users.
To learn more about improving your help content with great-looking visuals, check out 10 Ways to Make Better-Looking Visuals for Your Technical Guide.