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My Upcoming Presentation at the STC Silicon Valley Chapter -- "Why Users Can't Find Answers to Their Questions in Help Content"

by Tom Johnson on Oct 5, 2013
categories: findability

Silicon Valley STC ChapterI'm giving a presentation to the STC Silicon Valley chapter on October 21 titled "Why Users Can't Find Answers to Their Questions in Help Content." Here are the details:

Date and Time

Monday, October 21
6:00–7:00pm: social networking
7:00–8:00pm: my presentation


Harry's Hofbrau
1909 El Camino Real
Redwood City, CA 94063
(650) 366-3733
(There's a side room in this restaurant where we can meet.)


  • Free
  • You don't have to be an STC member to attend these meetings.
  • (Optional) You can order food during the social networking hour.

For more information, see the October meeting announcement on the STC Silicon Valley chapter site.

Presentation description

Here's what I'll be presenting:

Why Users Can't Find Answers to Their Questions in Help Content

One of the main goals of help material is to help users find answers to their questions, but so often this doesn't happen. Users foray into the help muttering under their breath only to leave it cursing vocally afterwards — because the help didn't answer their question, or at least the user couldn't find the answer. Why not? Why is it so hard to guide users to the right information when they need it?

I recently conducted a poll on my site — — asking tech writers to rank the top reasons (from 20 listed) why users can't find the information they're looking for. After 130 voters, about 7 reasons trended to the top with the most votes:

  • The answer isn't in the help because the help only sticks with obvious information.
  • The answer is an isolated task, but the user needs a more connected beginning-to-end workflow.
  • The user searches for the answer, but the help's poor SEO prevents the answer from surfacing.
  • The help uses terms unfamiliar to the user (e.g., “gizmo” instead of “widget”).
  • The help has been fragmented and dispersed over many small topics so the help is a maze.
  • The help doesn't provide concrete examples that make the concepts understandable.
  • The answer is buried in a long page, but the user only spends 2 minutes max on a page scanning.

In this presentation, I'll lead a discussion to analyze these reasons, explain why they pose the challenges they do, present potential solutions, and more. In so doing, I hope to address the root of why so many users feel disdain and apathy towards help material.

Note: I'm planning to record the audio of the presentation and make it available on my site for those of you who can't make it.

I'm giving a similar presentation to STC Berkeley in November and to STC Sacramento in January.

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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