The other day I came home to find Jane rather frustrated at the computer. She'd just ordered $40 worth of books from Half.com, but realized -- two weeks after completing the order -- that they were sent to an old email address with an unknown shipping address. The half.com address was apparently a Windows Live ID, but she couldn't remember any login information about it, nor could she retrieve the password, so she was having a terrible time.
I had a video camera handy and recorded the experience because I believe that as help authors, we too frequently forget the state of mind of computer users when they need help.
Her typing becomes more rapid and hurried. Little things around her (for example, her children, cookies) become more annoying and increase her stress level. She types away in disbelief and seems to keep trying the same thing over and over. Nothing on the help screen indicates that there's an answer to her problem. She shakes her head every now and then. She's tense. She repeatedly jerks her head. She looks up and squeezes her hands. She's running out of options. She throws things. The littlest disturbances set her off. Her stress level continues to escalate.
In moments like these, what might she do for help? Search for it? Click a relevant-looking help button? Call tech support? Call me? Yell at someone?
If there's one undeniable characteristic of the frustrated computer user, it's that her patience is gone. She will not be slowly flipping through the user manual. Notice her jerky movements. If she turns to the help (which she doesn't here), she'll search for keywords, skim rapidly, click quickly from topic to topic. She'll look for topics with clear flags for help – "Troubleshooting Passwords," "Can't Remember Your Login?", "Stuck? Click Here," etc.
She won't give any help page but 2-3 seconds of a glance to see if it has the information. She's in a hurry and she's desperate for the information, as if there's a ticking time bomb in the house about to go off.
As we write for users in this state of mind, we have to remember the hurry. Avoid long chunks of text. Avoid long topics. Make your topics findable in searches. Make your start page show the top ten list problems users encounter. Provide contact information for live help, if possible. Get right to the point in your text, without making the reader sort through fluff and meaningless introductory material. Provide answers to problems, not long descriptions of menu bars.
After Jane's emotions settled down, I asked her why she didn't turn to the documentation for help. She did, sort of. But, she explained, "If there's not a real person who can cry while I'm mean to them, where is the incentive to fix it?"
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.