When users don’t want help

For a while now I’ve been watching video presentations from the likes of the TED and GEL sessions. Largely these are delivered by people who are at the forefront of their field or who challenge common perceptions with some unique thinking.

The TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) sessions can be a bit random but they are always entertaining as they are delivered by people with a real passion for what they do, to an accomodating audience, by experienced presenters. It’s a good combination.

The GEL (Good Experience Live) conference is, as the name suggests, focussed on good experience. Which begs the question “What is good experience?” but there are others far better versed in giving an answer to that question so I’ll leave them to it (you may find some answers on the conference website).

It was on the latter website that I recently watched a presentation by the head of OXO (Note for UK readers: this is an American housewares company, not the makers of gravy cubes). Alex Lee, President of OXO, delivered a presentation featuring some of their products and outlined some of the guiding principles they follow, one of which he stated as:

“Helping people without the stigma of being helped”

Sound familiar? Have you heard something similar when discussing why “no-one reads the documentation”?

I think the first person who I heard mention this was Matthew Ellison at one of the Digitext Help Conferences. It was early in my career and did strike me as quite fundamental and a little bit hard to fathom. As a Technical Writer my main goal is to make the life of the user better (to give them a good experience when using the software by aiding them through those process), so to hear that there was an issue like this that blocked someone from accessing the documentation I was so carefully crafting was quite a shock.

So how do we, as technical communicators, deal with this issue? How can we help our users get past that stigma?

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this, I have a couple of ideas in mind but nothing firm. Is this something you try and cater for in your product information? Do you have any way to influence this in other areas of the product? What techniques have you deployed that help get users ‘into’ the documentation? Is there much of anything that we CAN do??

I’m off to dig about for any research into this area, feel free to leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments, or email me direct.

2 comments

  1. Well, I was going to mention the thought-provoking article “What if readers can’t read?” at http://www.hyperwrite.com/Articles/showarticle.aspx?id=84 until I saw that you had dumped it into the WriterRiver, so you know that one already.

    Apart from that, the perennially excellent Kathy Sierra site CPU comes to mind with posts such as
    – Attenuation and the suck threshold http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/10/getting_users_p.html
    – Helping users “feel the fear and do it anyway” http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2007/03/helping_users_f.html
    – The best user manuals EVER http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2007/03/the_best_user_t.html

  2. I think this is another aspect of the trend to considering every interaction a user has with a software product or an online site, and with all its related adjuncts like the Help, the documentation, FAQs, even online or help desk telephone support, in other words, every interaction that a person has with a product or a company, as part of the “User Experience”.

    I’ve been following the http://www.uxmatters.com web site, which has a variety of columnists and usability experts writing on different aspects of such interactions. I recommend that you check it out.

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