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Content Strategy Can Help. Literally.

by Christine Benson on October 21st, 2010

You’d be hard-pressed to find a reputable e-commerce site without some sort of help/support link in the header. But how many times have you clicked on a help link and found NOTHING helpful?  How did that happen? Everyone agreed that a help section was needed. They all knew the customers were going to go there.

But there was still a disconnect between putting the help link on the page and actually planning for that content. Determining what content should be there, how it should be organized, who will create it, and how it will be maintained are all central to the practice of content strategy.

For the sake of keeping this post short, I’ll assume that the product copy is already planned for.  If you’re creating an e-commerce site and you haven’t done that, you’ve got some serious content problems that a blog post probably can’t solve. Moving on …

Interface design is about the numbers. Great design supports the majority of interactions the customer comes to do. User testing uncovers error scenarios for those interactions. Then interface improvements are made to eliminate or mitigate the scenarios.

But there are exceptions. Sometimes people have questions or need additional support. An interface that tries to provide a solution for every exception usually results in something messy and less useable.

I’ve personally witnessed user testing where these outlier scenarios were uncovered. The facilitator asks, “Where would you go to answer that question?” 99% of the time the answer was “I’d use the help link.” Awesome, problem solved. The user found the help link. Test over.

But wait … What’s actually in that help section?

If you find yourself staring at a blank or non-helpful help section, here are a few tips to get your content back on track:

Identify the needs
Do new site users have the same questions as existing users? Are they in the middle of a task or looking for general information? Is this something that can be answered online or will they need to call customer service?  Answering these types of questions will help determine what content to include and how to prioritize it.

Make a plan to create the content
Someone needs to write the content. That someone will need source material. Make friends with the user experience and customer service people. As the front lines to the customers, they can identify what questions are being asked and the frequency of those questions. They can also explain the process needed to resolve the customer’s issue.

After the content is written, it’ll need to go through proofing, revisions, publishing, and other processes and checkpoints. Never forget that creating content is about more than writing.

Set style guidelines
How your content “speaks” should be in line with your brand, but a help page should not sound like a marketing promotion. Here’s a real life scenario: say you ask someone for directions and they start by telling you about their wonderful city or apologizing that you’re lost. You’d likely be impatient at best. Don’t do that. Answer the question directly and succinctly. Then be done with it.

Feed and care for your help section
Content is never done. Out-of-date content is not only embarrassing, but damaging to your brand. Your customer came to you for support, and your content didn’t deliver.

If you’re making enhancements to your site functionality, include a plan to review the help content. Things like changes to store policies or new product lines can also require updates to the help section. Determine a regular audit schedule to check for accuracy and information gaps (remember that part about making friends with the customer service reps?), then make sure the content gets updated.

And if you’re still stuck, call us. We’d love to help.

(Image: "Help" by Flickr user LiminalMike (CC: by-nc-sa 2.0))

  • http://lindroux.wordpress.com Lindy Roux

    Great post. The Help section is often an afterthought, rapidly thrown together after the ‘meat’ of the site is done. To be honest, I have yet to come across a Help section that I love. Can you cite any good examples out there?

  • http://narrativehook.com Jon Hanke

    Awesome post. It’s that last step that seems to get overlooked the most – circling back and finding out where the trouble spots are AFTER the site’s been online for several weeks. That’s when you can really find out where things went a bit wacko.

  • http://twitter.com/sue_DesigEditor sue_DesigEditor

    Our role is to serve & protect: serve our clients & protect readers’ time. Great post, as always!

  • http://twitter.com/gryphmount Ben Minson

    I’m disappointed to see that the role of technical communicator or technical writer wasn’t mentioned in your list. Every good tech writer lives by these suggestions you’ve given. Companies can get far in this area by hiring one.

    This is a great post nevertheless and a good reminder to anyone building a website.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Lindy,

    There’s several that have good stuff in them, but there isn’t a single one that does it all for me.

    Amazon and Dell have some good stuff things about them, and I’m a bit partial to the content on Best Buy, since we worked with them on that project.

    If you ever find one that has great content along with a great interface, please, send it along!

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