I recently purchased a new laptop, which came with Windows 8 installed. I’ve been using computers for a long time now. I even consider myself relatively geeky for a non-technical person, given that I spent nearly 10 years working at Microsoft and I do a lot of work with software like content management systems (not to mention being co-founder of a software startup). So I have a tendency to assume I’ll figure it out. I don’t, therefore, ever RTFM (geek-speak for "Read the F-ing Manual").

Even the less geeky among us, though, have been trained to believe that new technology, both hardware and software, should be “plug-and-play,” i.e., we really shouldn’t need to refer to the documentation or search the help file. And if we do, we’re somehow failing as users. Companies have responded by putting less and less effort, it seems to me, into the quality and breadth of their documentation so when we do throw up our hands and go look, it’s seldom rewarded. The expectation is now that the community will provide the support and, indeed, the best and most accurate information is often found in a forum somewhere in the depths of the internet. I have learned more about using Excel, for example, from the various tips and tricks sites out there than I have from the program help.

But back to my Windows 8 experience. Despite the seeming user-friendliness of all the touchable UI bits, I was having trouble figuring out how to do something that seemed as though it should be obvious. After touching/clicking around for a while, I still hadn't figured it out. In all that time spent hunting on my own, I could easily have searched the help. Or could I? Where does one find the Window 8 help? And why doesn’t the search function include Help as an option? To find the help and support file, you have to look at the “All apps” screen, filled with teeny, tiny little icons to find Help and Support.

But I didn’t look for that at that moment. Frustrated, I took the next natural step—I posted a complaint on Facebook. Within moments, someone offered the answer. My problem was solved. Thanks to my community, not Microsoft.

Joshua Fruhlinger wrote an article a few years ago for Engadget called “95 percent of all returned gadgets work, Americans don’t read manuals.” That’s a pretty shocking statistic, but in some ways not surprising. If even those most content-friendly among us (aren’t content strategists supposed to love to read words?) aren’t inclined to read the manual, who will?

The brilliant Joel Spolsky, in "Designing for People Who Have Better Things to Do With Their Lives," writes that “When you design user interfaces, it's a good idea to keep two principles in mind:

  1. Users don't have the manual, and if they did, they wouldn't read it.
  2. In fact, users can't read anything, and if they could, they wouldn't want to.”

He continues, “The upshot of all this is that you probably have no choice but to design your software so that it does not need a manual in the first place.”

The reality is, though, that not all software (and by software I'm including online apps) can be designed to not need a manual. Sure, maybe we can figure out "Angry Birds," without help, but what about  a complex business app or a site with sophisticated transactional elements? How do we as content strategists help users who no longer (did they ever?) start out by reading the manual? One of the tools at our disposal is easily accessed, ubiquitous in-context help (never mind the designers who don’t want their beautiful pages littered with all those little question mark icons!). Another obvious one is making use of the fact that we’re all conditioned to JFGI (more geek speak, meaning "Just F-ing Google It"). Make search easy to find, and consider when it might be appropriate to use scoped search (i.e., limited to a particular section of the site to keep the results focused). And instead of overwhelming users with long, tedious documentation files, create a series of shorter, focused, easy-to-read tips articles that are quickly scanned and understood.

What are your best tips for helping users understand your app or your site?