Inline help - the FAQ is dead!

I just completed a quick&dirty heuristic evaluation for one of my research advisor’s other projects (redesigning an online Eiolca Life Cycle Assessment tool). Although the new design includes many changes that vastly improve usability, one change that I paid particular attention to was a shift to including inline help, rather than linking users to extensive help documentation. This seems to be a growing trend in UI design, and I believe that it is a welcome one. We are a culture that strives for instant gratification, and wasting time loading up a FAQ document or knowledgebase is just too much work. In fact, I’ve found that many people are so anti-“reading the documentation” that they will opt for tiresome calls to tech support or give up altogether.

Thus, inline help is a great solution– anticipate potential user problems or questions, and provide quick links/blurbs that will address their concerns, should they have any. I’ve seen inline help work effectively in several different ways, particularly when having users fill out forms (as was the case for my professor’s project):

1. The most basic: provide clear labels that prompt users for the correct information the 1st time around, but also have further explanatory instructions available right above/next to the field for immediate clarification.

2. Provide a link/icon/button that users can click on for more help. The “?” button is quite popular; I’ve also seen mouseover techniques work quite effectively. A sidebar that contains links to specific information in an online help document is also an option, although users may distrust these if relevant information is not immediately found.

3. Have “warning” labels that update/display automatically when users input invalid information, thus helping to keep them on the right track and avoid frustrating errors. Suggestions can also be quite useful, be they the default answers supplied in fields, or small suggestions listed beneath the fields.

Long story short, it’s not about creating more extensive online help documents– it’s about providing relevant help at the right time. This can be achieved by using inline help (and rephrasing documentation so that it is clear and understandable given the target audience’s level of knowledge) is. An added bonus: by minimizing user confusion and frustration from the outset, one might be able to lower operating costs by reducing the amount of calls to a call center. Plus, happy users will say great things about your system!