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Sierra Says Help Needs to Be Human, Conversational, and Geared Towards Panicky Users

by Tom Johnson on Mar 18, 2007
categories: technical-writing

Kathy Sierra is on the leading-edge for user help. In her posts and speeches for Creating Passionate Users, she often talks about the qualities of help that works, especially in this excellent South by Southwest presentation.

SXSWIn this presentation, she asks why so many participants actually attended South by Southwest, because the conference was in fact being recorded, blogged, and even twittered. Ironically, the same people developing interactive social media (which allows virtual participation) all attended physically rather than virtually. Why?

Because they crave the human element, which was not available remotely. This led to Sierra's main point: in the applications we build, we must include more human aspects in the interface and help. The human aspect is what you can't normally get from a computer. The human element is what users crave.

For an example, Sierra says when a student is confused in a classroom, the teacher sees the confused look and asks questions to clarify, and then explains the concept from different angles with examples until the nonverbal expressions from the student show understanding.

Sierra then asks, how can we do the same with our applications? While completely human virtual interactions aren't possible without advancements in artificial intelligence, she says we can write our help to sound more human. When we write conversationally, using "you" and contractions, our language connects with users on a socioemotional level. She says the brain is more awake with conversational-style writing because conversations signal participation. Hence you are more alert when reading conversational text.

Sierra also says technical writers need to recognize the type of users they're addressing (as any human would). Most technical writing is written as if the user will be exploring the help patiently, in a calm mood, leisurely clicking here and there for education and reference. This is not the case at all. Most people turn to help out of panic. They click through it with frustration, exasperation, and anger. They feel stupid because they can't figure out how to do something, and they project this indignation onto the help. The users are in a state where expletives and other obscenities are on the tips of their tongues.

Yet we write help as if our users are mildly interested, smiling, not under pressure, casual. English 101 taught us that all writing addresses a rhetorical situation. The users' state of mind and emotional disposition affect the receipt of the message we're communicating. Technical writers often don't take into consideration the flustered, mad, desperate, emotional state of our audience. Taking into consideration the mindset and disposition of the users is a very human thing to do. To ignore desperation is inhuman.

Sierra recommends that the first thing users see in online help is a Don't Panic topic (or something equivalent). FAQs should be real user questions, integrated into the sections they apply rather than grouped on their own. Context-sensitive help needs to include a forest focus, not just a tree focus — meaning, you need to provide help beyond a granular task only available on the screen, because the granular focus may be irrelevant to the user's question.

Sierra says users in desperation need the human element. When we write help, we shouldn't talk like Spock. When Hollywood directors want to portray someone as robotic, they make the person speak without using contractions. Even a small move towards a more human speech in the way we write, says Sierra, can make a huge difference in users' acceptance and embrace of help. Our humanity is essential in communicating to users who need a guiding, helping friend. Panicky users do not need a sterile, formal, robot voice.

Sierra's core philosophy towards help is to get users past the "suck threshold" to the point where they're good enough to become passionate. She thinks good user guides and learning material can help move users into a state of passion. In essence, she says, "He who gets his users past the suck threshold faster than the competition and ramps users up to the passionate phase wins." Help is critical in achieving passionate users.

She ends by saying that with the right learning materials, we can help users achieve the flow state. The flow state provides users with some of the happiest moments of their lives. In essence, technical writers are happiness-enablers.

Update: I found a near-transcript of Sierra's keynote. It provides some visuals that didn't come through in the audio podcast.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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