Have you considered that perhaps your web support site fails because you have failed with its design? Reading another of Dr. Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox articles reminded me how easy it is to do things wrong. In Dr. Nielsen’s Top Ten Mistakes in Web Design, he covers some very important points.
First, bad search. In regard to search Dr. Nielsen begins with handling typos and variants. If your search engine does not, you are going to have problems. Another important point is how the search engine prioritizes results. Many do it by the number of words matching in the search terms. This formula is a recipe for disaster, as all your long documents will overshadow your short and to-the-point troubleshooting responses.
Number two is my pet peeve, PDFs for online reading. If you have PDFs and the search issue mentioned above, this is what your users are getting, and they are not happy. The biggest issue I have with PDFs is the time it takes to view one. Dr. Nielsen makes other good points such as it is all an “undifferentiated blob.”
Does the color of a link change on your site after it has been clicked? If not, that is design error number three. Hopefully the user benefit is obvious – it tells them where they have already been.
Design issue four from Dr. Nielsen is non-scannable text. Remember that you are writing for an online audience that will quickly click away if your content is difficult to read. Dr. Nielsen recommends using bulleted lists and highlighting keywords, among other things.
The fifth mistake is to fix the size of your fonts. If you have ever seen someone have their browser default text set to large or x-large, you understand the issue. Just as your user may click away because they cannot easily scan your text, they will also click away if they cannot read it.
Do your titles lend themselves to search and search results? Here’s an area that should be taught as part of a course on writing for online consumption. Did you know that most users do not read more than the first three to five words? And if they do, the search engine will typically only display the first 66 characters. If you want your users to find the right content, then you better write titles that are meaningful and to the point, yet distinctive from each other.
You do not advertise on your support site, do you? You should not! And anything that looks like an ad that is not an ad is design mistake number seven according to Dr. Nielsen. You have big problems if you are using banners, have animation, or pop-ups. Get rid of them.
Design mistake number eight is violating design conventions. Dr. Nielsen points out that consistency is the more important element. Make sure your users know what to expect; and once they are familiar with your site, definitely do not change it for change sake.
How do you feel about pop-ups and new browser windows? That is what I thought. So do not make your customers deal with them either. If you must have a pop-up, at least have the courtesy to warn them. For example, on my business site, we pop-up are animations in a new window so we can turn off all the extra buttons and bars on the browser so we can maximize the viewable area. Since our animations are examples in using our design software, it is difficult to provide screenshots without a large area to display them.
Perhaps the biggest design issue for a support website, Dr. Nielsen’s number 10, don’t fail to answer the user’s question. If you were a commerce site, the question would be price. For a support site it is, how do I fix this problem? And if you do not have an answer here, how can I call you?
Most or all of these seem rather obvious, but surprisingly several get violated all the time. Some are also very difficult to do well. For example, if you do not put enough resources into your search engine, it’s not going to live up to your customers’ need. I have also seen people want to PDF solutions because it is easier for them. Remember, if it is easy for your staff, but not helping your customers, then even easier for your staff would be to not post it at all – because that is the same result that you will get.
How does your web support site stack up?