Every touch point you have with a customer is an opportunity to market your value to them. And why should you market to customers? Because they've already bought from you and they're the most likely to buy more or upgrade. You already have a relationship with customers, but there's a certain level of trust that you're still trying to build with the people you haven't sold to yet.
Unfortunately, I see businesses - especially in the software subscription area (*cough* money-related stuff *cough*) - make their help files so confusing you just want to bang your head against...something. For businesses that aren't in the software space, there are many examples of confusing copy - in physical locations and on the web.
When help files don't help, how long do you think people will keep using a service when there are other options available that can meet their needs?
It's a great time to be in business in some ways because the number of options we have is staggering. But it costs time and money to switch. It also costs time and money and stress to be aggravated by confusing copy all the time. That's why it's so important to make sure what you're saying is clear.
A friend of mine recently shared some copy from a vendor site where they were doing research to get answers for a client who used that particular vendor. I can't tell you how bad I wanted to paste that copy in here to share with you, but it's the web and you can trace it back to them, so I resisted.
Instead, I decided to share a little advice that will hopefully filter its way back to some of the people who have sites with the confusing copy. If I can make a difference for anyone on this, I've succeeded.
Before you hit the button that sends that help copy out into the ether, remember these things:
1) The people using your software aren't experts in your software.
If you use specialized terminology for everything in your software, you can't expect people to know what you're talking about, especially if they're hiring a third-party or only occasionally access the system. Think about all the different ways your software is used and the complexity of the information. If it's Facebook-level, your copy is going to be pretty easy to make understandable. But if you're talking about bookkeeping/tax software, for example, that's far more complex. It's going to be hard work to make sure that users can understand and still cover all the legal bases that are inevitable in highly regulated spaces.
It's worth the effort. Remember, the better your users understand, the more you're differentiated from your competitors. We marketers like differentiation - especially when it comes to those regular touch points with customers.
2) Step-by-step screenshots are essential for complex UI.
I'm gonna brag on a company I've been using for almost 9 years. This website you're looking at right now is built on Squarespace (and if it isn't, someone has scraped my content - shame on them). I use a separate domain registrar that has a confusing-as-heck domain manager. Actually, that might be a requirement of domain registrars - making the DNS settings user interface (UI) illogical and incomprehensible. Then they change their UI every 6-12 months to keep you on your toes.
I've built many Squarespace websites and, without fail, I can go to a page dedicated to my (major) registrar that has step-by-step instructions with up-to-date screenshots of everything I need to change to connect my domain. Squarespace help is one of the many reasons I stay with them year after year. They make painful processes easy to navigate. That, my friend, is truly helpful. Because I don't have time for complicated explanations and neither do you.
3) Every piece of copy about your product leaves an impression.
Don't you want that impression to be a good one? If your copy inspires an experienced, knowledgeable professional to post it to social media because it's so incomprehensible, you're missing the mark. Your bad copy is literally costing time and money. In this instance, research time that - if it wasn't being billed back to the client (quite possible) - was actually costing a small business owner money. Do you really want to be known for that?
There's a simple solution, but it takes a commitment from you - the software maker - to spend the extra time it takes to clean up your copy. Microsoft learned this lesson back in the late 90s when they overhauled all of their MS Office help files and people noticed the difference.
Build checks and balances into the process
You've got teams of really smart people, all with varying expertise. The product people know the product intimately, but they may be too close to it to edit themselves when it comes to producing help content that's easy to read and understand. For that, you have to tap into people who aren't experts on the product or the nuts and bolts of the regulations.
Ideally, find writers who can dig in and ask the right questions so your highly technical explanations can be simplified. And don't confuse "simplified" with "dumbed down." They aren't the same thing. Simplifying content is about taking out jargon, industry-specific terminology, and fluff. What's left behind is useful, to-the-point, and easy to digest.
Stop confusing your customers and start taking the extra time to help them instead.