Think Awesome, Not Boring, for User Help

I complained in a prior post that the user interfaces for help have not kept pace with the huge improvements made to software interfaces, and while I picked on a lot of examples of boring help, I didn’t offer any examples that broke the mold.   Of course, it’s much more constructive to talk about what we can do better.  So I’ve listed a few examples of great help below, and I’m also including some ideas that I haven’t seen in practice, but serve as examples of the fun things that can be done.

Gamification

Gamification is a huge topic lately, but I haven’t seen it applied to help very much.  Axure is partly there: it’s organization of topics into ‘newbie’, ‘apprentice’, and ‘master’ is reminiscent of games.

Axure - An example of (light) gamification

This is a great starting point.  To improve it I would like to see the system remember users who visit, and give them feedback on their progress.  Like LinkedIn’s profile completeness:

LinkedIn - Profile completeness is gamified

I think this would really improve the experience for users.

Interactivity

The only times the user interacts with most help systems is to click links to topics or to search.  This is a shame, because usually the user is trying to accomplish a very specific task and there’s a lot we can do with modern technologies to help filter the information for her.  Here’s a very simple example: Gmail’s Help on IMAP and POP is written to help the user sync their mail with other systems.  Rather than telling the user instructures for each technology, the user is asked to choose which they want to use:

Gmail - Choose your technology

And then the user is shown the instructions based on their choice:

Gmail - Instructions filtered to the user's technology

 

This is a very trivial example – we could do a lot more with this space.

Personality

In the user’s mind, help systems are an extension of the software they’re meant to document.  It doesn’t make sense to use an interface in help that doesn’t match the rest of the system, but I see it happen very frequently.  MailChimp is an example of a help system with great branding – it perfectly matches the personality of its accompanying software.

MailChimp - Topic catalogue

 

I like the combination of easy to understand topic titles and colorful  images associated with them.

Magazine Layouts

I would love to see a help system take design cues from the Magazine layout apps that have been popping up lately.  One great example of such an app is Flipboard.  Flipboard collects the items in my twitter feed and blogs into a beautiful, easy to read magazine.  It gives me five to ten articles in a single view, and at least a couple of sentences from each so I can quickly get the gist of the article’s content, and then choose to view the entire article if I’m interested.  I think it could be a great inspiration for user help.

Your Turn

These are a few examples of my favorite user help systems, and ideas for what I think can be done to improve the experience.  What are your ideas for improving user help?