Avoiding Errors: It’s Not Your Fault!

sorry-gameAs consumers everywhere can confirm: online user help and support is a tremendous pain in the neck. Once you throw in the towel and click to get support – if you can find it that is – more often than not the written instructions are complex jargon or incomplete steps that leave you feeling completely bamboozled.

Is it little wonder that recent research from Forrester’s customer service expert found that an astonishing 81 percent of consumers preferred speaking to a real person by phone or going to the office/store in person to discuss their issue face-to-face and not subject themselves to online help?

Thankfully, when the help desk workers are overwhelmed or feedback complaints are on the rise the impulse to simply hide the phone number is not seriously considered – at least most of the time.

A better track for Web managers who want to steer visitors to helpful help is available: take a second look at how you write-up instructions. Author Richard Saul Wurman says that to follow instructions without error or mistakes, you need to make sure you have included all the necessary elements to take action.

Aren’t you glad to know you are not to blame for poorly written instructions?


Here is his list, which could easily become a checklist you could use to inventory your current help content to grade it for being actionable or merely content masquerading as help.

  1. Objective: What’s The Destination?
  2. Purpose: For What Reason?
  3. Core: What’s The Procedure To Follow?
  4. Time: What’s The Duration?
  5. Expectation: What Can I Anticipate Along The Way?
  6. Failure: How Do I Recognize An Error/Common Mistakes?

Most of the time we write instructions focusing only on procedure and forget the rest of it, especially time and common mistakes. When you check your content for help against this list and see what you are missing, chances are adding the missing pieces will make your instructions easy to take action on.

In Wurman’s wonderful chapter on “actionable instructions” from Information Anxiety 2, he says it is not your fault when you make a mistake following inferior instructions. The responsibility lies instead with the poor instruction writer. His time-tested road-map is remarkably similar to directions you might give a friend you’ve invited to an event.

Here is his geographic example:

  • We’d like you to come to our house next Friday (destination)
  • We’re having a party to celebrate my birthday (reason)
  • Our address is 1015 Forest. Get off at the Oak Park exit on the Eisenhower Expressway. (procedure)
  • The whole drive should take about a half hour (time)
  • On the expressway, you’ll pass Central Ave. and then Austin Ave. before you come to Oak Park (anticipation)
  • If you see an exit for River Forest, you’ve gone too far (mistake)

When I’ve used this checklist against instructions, I find the steps most often left out seem are “time” and “common mistakes“. Imagine a support page where you were always told how long the task takes and how to avoid or troubleshoot common mistakes. It would help a lot of web readers breathe easily and make all of us – information providers and consumers alike – a little more productive.


Of course, one step removed from actionable instructions is getting your users to click on the button is so they can reach your support information is a necessary pre-condition for your instructions working at all. So one bit of research says you should look at the label for that area of your website. What do you call it? Many use the tried and true terms like HELP and SUPPORT.

The problem is, it seems much as men never seem to ask for directions when driving lost (an unfortunate stereotype surely) web users are reluctant to admit defeat. One researcher found that cloaking this section of the site like a “secret” to let you in on the “tips” brought a lot more traffic to your content. Their solution was to re-label the HELP section and call it TIPS. We all like to be in on the secret, right?