Help content is often one of the last resorts for frustrated or confused users when deciding whether to continue using your website or application or give up on it. Here are seven tips for a writer, developer, product manager, or business person who wants to create great help content in order to make sure users stick around.

1: Get to know your user

The best way to help frustrated users is to know what they want. Track data to see user behavior, ask users what they are looking for, and create content based on this research. Learn to speak your user’s language so you can use words and terms your users use. Here are a few ideas for how to do this:

  • attend company webinar Q&A sessions and listen for how users refer to processes and workflows;
  • scan chats, tweets, or internal communications for recurring issues; and
  • set up user feedback calls, or ask to listen in on them.

2: Write for frustrated users

Users looking for help content are almost always frustrated, so in your writing, use a sensitive voice and tone, and avoid condescension at all costs. Here’s how:

  • do not include obvious statements or redundant information;
  • break up text with subheadings so users can skim for the appropriate topic; and
  • read your help content while you’re angry, and fix any content that frustrates you.

3: Get right to the point

Frustrated users don’t want to waste time mucking around in confusing content, so edit the content to contain just enough detail. Some suggestions include:

  • cover all your major features first so they are easy to find; and
  • provide a one-page quick reference guide.

4: Be organized

Help your users navigate around your help content by being super organized. You should:

  • create an index;
  • write numbered steps (stay within 5-10);
  • present longer content in a separate tab;
  • carefully structure longer-form help content by topic:
    • have a small number of main categories, each of which can have sub-categories,
    • put more important topics and common issues higher up in the structure; and
  • when linking to other relevant content, link to specific topics rather than general help buttons.

5: Test before you publish

Before you put your content in front of users, test that it makes sense. You might:

  • test your content on coworkers who don’t have knowledge of your product and ask if it makes sense to them; and
  • use an online testing service, such as UserTesting or Loop11.

6: Don’t throw off the user’s groove

It can be very frustrating for users when they’re in the middle of a task, need a quick answer, and must navigate away from the product to a long page of help content. Here are ways to help your user while keeping them engaged with your product or website:

  • embed help content in context using hover-overs or tooptips (i.e., a brief message for the user that shows on hover) for short text; and
  • use modal dialogs for longer or more complex content (and illustrations).

7: Keep content fresh

In most companies, product functionality changes all of the time. One of the main reasons users may be looking for help content is to understand how to use a new feature. To help these users:

  • create articles for new features as soon as they come out; and
  • tightly couple help content to the code so it’s easy to change, and it’s attached to changes in the application.

Share your tips

These are just a few ways to make help content a vehicle to stamp out user frustration, and keep people engaged with your website or application. If you have more good ideas or best practices for writing help content, share your suggestions in the comments.