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Web Writing That Works: Embedding Customer Assistance

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Jonathan and Lisa Price

If you’re in the middle of ordering a new pair of fuzzy bedroom slippers, and you wonder how to fill out a slot in the form, do you want to go somewhere else for Help, or an FAQ?


You want that info right away…right where you are…right now.

You don’t want to leave the order, go to the top of a FAQ menu, make a choice, read the material, realize it is not what you want, go back to the menu, choose another item, and, if it is relevant, memorize it, and then return, back, back, back to the form, to apply what you learned, if you can still remember it.

In testing, we see people go through these loops two, three, four, even five times, just trying to understand one form.

Little wonder that sites report that half to three quarters of their shopping carts are abandoned before checkout is complete. GO TO is bad practice in programming, and GO TO is terrible for a visitor who just wants a simple answer to a question.

Put The Info Where I Need It

Embedding assistance in the interface works better than sending people to other pages for the information they need.

Just as software should explain itself, your site’s interface should offer advice, rather than requiring people to leave the page, go wandering around, find something relevant, and write it on a yellow sticky (or memorize it) and then return and try again.

FAQs And Help Live Elsewhere

Sure, you may need to provide a big pile of information on other pages, in the form of FAQs and Help. But start out by giving people a word to the wise, right when they need it.

When asked how useful they considered conventional help systems attached to software, almost three quarters of novice users call it "not helpful." (Two thirds of experts say the same thing).

The whole idea of a separate help facility supporting users is antiquated, an echo of paper manuals.

Yes, you may need to provide full documentation in a separate place, but you should let guests avoid that big pile by offering them on-the-spot tips.

Make Information Part Of The Interface

Anywhere you want people to act, put advice, explanations, or instructions. Build assistance into the interface.

Your aim should be to help keep people on task, to make them successful, and to reduce the need to go elsewhere for information.

Of course, politically, this approach means you must make sure that the page layout has room for these little verbal flourishes. You are no longer creating a whole page about a subject, or even a few paragraphs. You are adding a phrase here, a sentence there, never more than a dozen words, total. You are not "writing about" the site—you are annotating the interface.

Label Those Fields

How should I enter a date, or create a new password, so your system accepts it? What do you mean, province? Do I really have to fill in this second address line?

Silly questions. Stupid users, right?

No--stupid interface.

You can smarten up the interface by having it explain exactly how to enter information.

Explain, With Examples

Take the date, for example. A weak attempt to explain what the program expects is the old-fashioned but ugly expression, "MM/DD/YYYY", left over from ancient mainframe applications.

You have room to say you want the month, day, and year, in that order, and you can give an example, so people don’t accidentally confuse the software by entering March when the programmers expected "3" or, worse, "03."

Please enter month, day, year, like this: 3/25/2002

Notice that we are also trying to make the interface polite. As your mother told you, well-brought-up designers say "Please" and "Thank you," even in these labels.

If A Field Is Required, Say So.

I know, the marketing team worries that saying "Required" over and over again sounds authoritarian, and it is.

But you need to make sure that users don’t inadvertently miss a field, and then press Submit only to be bounced back to the form, with an error message like "Illegal input. Retry."

(And, in some cases, all the data has been wiped out of the form, so the user has to type it all in again).

Marking required fields with red asterisks is a start in the right direction, but, alas, many people ignore those little punctuation marks. A verbal label, saying "Required" re-enforces those fuzzy marks.

If you reject someone’s form because he has not filled out a required field, highlight the field, for gosh sakes. (And preserve all the data he already entered, so he doesn’t have to retype, and retype, while trying to enter enough information to pass through your validation process.)

Explain Why You Want The Information

If you suspect people will wonder why you are asking for some unusual or embarrassing fact, give a parenthetical explanation.

If you are asking for a visitor’s mother’s maiden name, say why: "So we can make sure it’s you calling, if you want to check your account or change your password over the phone."

Yes, a lot of words. But more words equal more reassurance here. Generally, any request that you must explain belongs on a secure server, and you should be constantly--over and over--stressing that the information will be protected. Make a big deal of your secure server.

At least once on every form page, down by the Submit button, state your privacy policy in a sentence, to allay fears, and encourage that final click.

Put Embarrassing Information Where They Need It

Have you ever put a product in your shopping cart, then gone to check out, entered your credit card number, and gone to a confirmation page only to discover that the shipping charges are outrageous?

That outrage arises on many sites, because the designers feel guilty about the charges, and fear that if you know the shipping costs in advance, you will refuse to buy. Actually, hiding these costs leads to a high rate of abandoned shopping carts.

Best practice: Put the shipping options--and their costs—on every product page. The costs vary by weight, delivery time, delivery service. That’s understandable.

But part of the buying decision involves figuring out the total cost, so visitors need to see these options, and the costs, before they can confidently go ahead with the purchase.

Test: go to any ecommerce site and see how well it hides the corporate policy on returning products. (Most sites seem to figure that they will avoid returns if they refuse to talk about them, or limit their mention to a few cryptic sentences, implying that only Martians need to consider the issue).

Hiding Key Information Is A Form of Lying

Don’t do it.

Remember: people have seen, elsewhere on the Web, sites that expose all of this information at first glance.

People know you can do it. So redesign your pages to give people the facts that your team feels may be embarrassing.

Figure Out Your Weak Points

We’re not just talking shipping rates here.

Your team knows what facts are most embarrassing because the reviewers have complained about those aspects of the product, customers keep calling in with questions about them, and your competitors take pleasure in pointing to those weaknesses.

Expose yourself, then. Overcome the shame, and include those facts along with the more positive ones.

How come?

On the Web, people will find this stuff out anyway, sooner or later. If you tip your hand, right off, they feel they can trust you. But if you hide the facts, or reveal them only when you have to (like at the last moment during the order process), you make people mad. Arrrgh!

Give Examples

If your advanced search offers Boolean choices, such as AND, OR, NOT, make those into dropdown choices, so someone can build a query without guessing about the punctuation and sequence.

But in addition to the dropdown choices, give examples, right on the search page. Complex filters are great on large sites, but you need to tell people a little story with each choice.

Start by saying what someone wanted. "If you wanted to find a book by an author whose last name is Price, and you know you don’t want books by Willard Price…" You are posing the scenario. When people know what the purpose is, they understand the next part of the example much better.

Show The Actual Syntax

Continue your story with Part Two: the actual action taken. "You would type Price NOT Willard."

Finally, Part Three of your example describes the results, so visitors can see what effect that action had. "You would get a list of all books by authors whose last name is Price, other than Willard Price."

Three parts, then:

1) scenario
2) action
3) results

This tiny narrative helps people see how their own purpose might gibe with the imaginary character, and, if it does, they then discover what action they should take, and, just in case they are still in doubt, they can confirm that the results are what they would expect.

Use examples wherever you know that customers find the process metaphysical—so abstract that only mathematicians and logicians think it makes sense. Here are a few times when you should consider adding examples, right on the page: when users are...

  • Configuring a web application
  • Filling out a user profile
  • Thinking about whether to subscribe
  • Choosing a product
  • Checking out

Make Embedding a Habit

Remember all those correspondents who were embedded with military units during the invasion of Iraq? To give your users up-close-and-personal help, embed your assistance in your screen.

Sure, you probably ought to develop a good FAQ, too…and maybe even a more traditional Help. But if you are generous enough with tips, labels, and clues, your uses may never have to go elsewhere in your site—or off your site—for more information.

Embedding customer assistance in your forms, in your interface, and in your content is like smiling when you meet someone. People may not consciously realize how much you have helped them on the spot, but they do recognize that you care.

So, if you keep adding these bits and pieces of assistance throughout your site, these little nothings add up to a real relationship. Helping people as they go through your page telegraphs that you empathize, that you are trying to reduce confusion, because you have had the same questions they do, and you have made the effort to provide answers.