When you need help, where do you go first?

July 30, 2010

A thought-provoking tech-comm discussion is taking place right now over at Tom Johnson’s blog and got me thinking (told you, it was thought-provoking)…  how many of us actually use the information provided in whatever technology we buy – whether it’s a computer, a car, a cell phone, an iPad?

Consider this an informal cross-over survey. I’m inviting my Twitter followers to participate because I’m under the assumption that your presence on Twitter means you have some interest in technology trends and as a consumer of technology, yours is the opinion we in the tech-comm field rely upon to improve our work. The techie gadgets and software we purchase are tools that we need in order to complete some job, tools for outlining novels, tools for reading eBooks, tools for communicating with colleagues. Whatever the technology, there is some form of instruction for using it.

My goal here is to determine the optimal formats for providing you with that instruction.

Tell me in the comments section what you think about user guides and online help systems.

  • For most gadgets, help is typically provided in the form of a printed User Guide. Do you read these? If no, why not?  Do you prefer to just ‘wing it’?
  • If you don’t read the printed guides, what do you do when you get stuck?
  • Consider the last time you bought software. Did it come with either a printed or a PDF version of a User Guide? Did you ever read it? Do you use the Online Help System? If you do use the Help, do you expect to see different information here than what was provided in the Guide?

Think about a recent purchase you love. Did its user guide or help system have any impact on your positive opinion? If so, tell me why/how.

Thank you all.



  1. I can’t say I read the User Guide cover to cover, but I am one of those people who looks technologically advanced, but really isn’t, so I definitely will flip through and read the portions that pertain to me. I prefer a printed guide, but if it only existed as a PDF, then I’d read that as well.

    And WHEN I get stuck, I will call someone who has a similar device and have them talk me through it.

    Sometimes you do have to just wing it, though. That’s how you learn, by doing.

  2. I wrote awhile back that nobody reads any more. I think of myself as Exhibit A: I grew up in pre-Internet days, I love to read for fun, and I’ve been a technical writer for a long time. But when I need to learn a new product I’ll consult the user guide only as long as it takes to get the thing up and running. Then I prefer to wing it. I’ll consult the help when I get stuck — and yes, I expect the help content to be different from the printed doc. (If it’s not different, what’s the point?) If the help doesn’t help me on my first or second try, I’ll never use it again. I’ll go to the forums and user groups, or I’ll ask a colleague for help.

    I think of the product as a means for completing a task, and I’m not interested in knowing anything about the product except what I need to complete my task. My idealistic side — the side that glorifies the idea of learning for learning’s sake — is a actually rather appalled at that. But with rare exceptions I feel like I’m too busy to spare the time. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.

  3. I recently got a Palm Pre. I unfolded the quick start instructions and glanced through them for about 5 minutes at the same time as I explored the phone’s interface. I did make an effort to read through the quick start, but that’s not saying much since there wasn’t more than a few pages of content.

    As I’ve started using the phone, I’ve had a few questions I couldn’t figure out from the interface. I searched for the answers in the online help built into the phone. Most of the time I find the answers.

    If I couldn’t find the answers in the phone’s built-in help, I would google them.

    Not all apps are like a phone. But this is my general process.

  4. Much as I hate to write user guides cover to cover, I don’t see them being replaced entirely by blog posts or videos. While users want just-in-time info and nothing more, making sure that they get that requires maintaining a knowledgebase. We have to think of ways to serve info from the knowledgebase for various needs and user types. And yes, we have to get integrated in the product dev. process so that the product is better designed – with strings and messages in plain English, clean intuitive workflows.

  5. I’m very similar to Larry Kunz in that I use a guide to get me started with a product and to get me out of a jam if I can’t figure something out. I used to read guides because I wanted to learn everything about the product, but now I’m too impatient to learn.

    That being said, the occasional times when I do read through a manual have been enormously beneficial. My husband thinks he’s the tech savvy one of us, but I read the instructions or look for Help, so twice this week alone I’ve been able to show him how something works on our many Apple products. “Ah ha!” becomes “ha, ha!”

  6. I recently got a reminder of how important documentation can become when I was trying to figure out 2 things on my new device: how to move my contacts from my old phone to the new one and how to place a call through my bluetooth. I found it extremely annoying that I had to go online to find the information. I wound up calling support and the rep (who was a nice person) had to go online to find the information too.

    Turns out that while I was on the phone with him, I found the information first and in both cases found out I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. If the information was packaged with the product, I might have found it in less than the hour or so I spent with support locating the information.

    Upshot is that when I needed it to get out of a jam and didn’t have it, I was quite frustrated. Almost considered returning the device for a refund (and no, there was no help to get me through on the device). However, one issue was fixed by going to a local support group and I’m living better not placing calls through the bluetooth anyway.

  7. This is gold, folks! We’re all tech users, so informal though it may be, a survey like this is truly helpful.

  8. I like my computer and at the same I am afraid of it. Since if something wrong happen to it, I am not able to repair it. The reason is that I don´t undrstand the instructions in the “help”. Moreover, when following the instructions I may cause worse things. But sometimes I met good guides for software e.g. ActivCompEn from UK for creating e-books.

  9. Galina, thanks for providing the example. There are good instructions out there.

    Julio, your experience with a local support group is the reason I got involved with social media. We have to do better at addressing usage frustrations.

  10. […] you they learn by doing. Patricia Blount asked this question on her blog a while back in her post When you need help, where do you go first? The responses were typical of how most people learn software: Sometimes you do have to just wing […]

  11. I think how I use a User Guide depends on its format. If it is prinetd I am more likely to flick through the contents until a section jumps out and hits me in the face. Then I’ll read it. If the User Guide online (e.g. a PDF) I’d more than likely not give it a second thought until I needed it. Then I’d open it and search for the most relevant section.

    • That’s a good point; flicking through the contents is often hard to do online unless the site provides a decent TOC.

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