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How Google Does Help

by Tom Johnson on Jun 27, 2009
categories: technical-writing screencastingvideo

With all the talk about latest trends and avoiding extinction as communicators, and integrating web 2.0 and wikis, blogs, podcasts, and other interactive social media into help, it's a good time to look at how Google -- practically the leader of the web -- does help.

Last week Google released Google Voice, a service that allows you to integrate all your phones into one number and includes a host of features, including voice mail, recording, conference calling, and other services.

To help users get started, Google Voice has a list of 20 short videos. Only the overview video contains animation. It's certainly the video they've put the most work into, and it also functions as marketing collateral.

The other videos are fairly simple, with short looping background music, professional voice talent, and a read script. The defining quality is that each video is short, some as short as 25 seconds.

The videos aren't integrated with the text help. So if you don't feel like watching videos, you can't easily read the same topic. Google Voice does have help text, but it's on another page, only linked to from the videos with a tiny, hardly noticeable help link in the footer. It's almost like one group produced text, another produced help, and they published them independently.

The video windows are small, under 500x500 pixels. The small video window allow you to easily move from one video to the next without losing your place in the site. If you click outside of the window, the window doesn't automatically minimize, which is nice. You have to close the pop-up window to go back to the list of videos.

All the videos are pulled in from Youtube, so they're shareable. After one video ends, you see a list of related videos, but the related videos aren't other Google Voice videos. Instead they are other Google services. So the related videos somewhat fail if you're trying to learn more about Google Voice.

You can't comment on the videos, or upload your own, or do anything other than watch them. Unlike the Michael Pick videos on, Google's videos are somewhat boring. Except for the overview video, which contains an animated stick figure, they lack a sense of being cool. They feel a bit corporate.

Similar to the length of the videos, the help content is also short and to the point, but the help topics are too text-heavy, with almost no illustrations, diagrams, or screenshots. The pages are embedded on the web, and navigating the topics is somewhat tedious. A search field appears at the top of the help, but if you search for the word "videos," nothing appears.

Glaringly absent is any printable manual. You can print a single page, but not a group of pages in a PDF manual format. Additionally, Google does not provide any kind of quick reference guide to get started.

You can't comment below the help topics, but there is a forum. The forum allows you to be notified by email and see the most popular discussions. You can also read a Google Voice blog, but the blog, like the help and the videos, isn't well integrated with the rest of the help materials. It somewhat lives on its own. Google's blog also takes the backward position of disallowing comments and only allows linkbacks to the posts.

One interesting characteristic of Google Voice help is a lack of parallelism in the topics. Here's a list of video topics:

The help topic titles are similarly unparallel. Usually help contains all verbs or nouns in a more parallel list.

My Analysis

Google puts a lot of effort in the overview video. That's a smart move. When people want to learn about Google Voice, the overview video communicates the service in a catchy way, with more of Google's branding. This video is probably watched thousands of times (a lot more than any other video), so it makes sense to go to the effort of including animation.

What I don't like about Google's help is the lack of integration between the video and help content. Not every topic deserves a video. Many times I'd rather read the help. And sometimes I'd rather watch a video. Separating the two formats so strongly is a poor usability move. The forum and blog also need to be more closely integrated with the other help materials.

Additionally, the lack of any printed manual makes me think Google has no single sourcing strategy. The help content is probably just written as regular text on each page. I would have appreciated the opportunity to print a quick reference guide or short manual, only because reading on the web is a nonlinear experience, and moving from one topic to another without any logical sequence can be tiring.

I also think Google chose the wrong voice for its videos. Google is playful, young, and irreverent. But the voice they chose is professional, corporate, scripted, and somewhat ordinary.

I've been thinking a lot about voice in videos. Professional voice talent is not necessarily engaging. It sounds professional, but a professional voice isn't always what users want, even if it's what they expect. Users want a voice that is friendly, engaging, conversational, and real. I wouldn't even mind it to be a bit spontaneous.

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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