As a rule, a website should be self-explanatory; no help required. However there are cases where your customers (I prefer that to “users”) will need your help. Introducing new concepts; changing the interaction; and explaining a complex system are all opportunities to either serve your customer or leave them hanging.
In these cases, help should be readily available when you need it, and unobtrusive when you don’t.
Here are a couple of great examples of online help that really works.
When Facebook introduced their recent changes to the profile page, they offered a tour of the changes that highlighted each new feature without taking you away from your profile. This is awesome, because essentially the guide uses your own profile as an example rather than a generic “Joe Facebook.” The data and examples are all relevant to you because they are yours!
Xero.com is a cloud-based accounting system for business. Accounting is complex, and people tend to be a bit touchy about getting the numbers right, especially when it comes to their own money!
Xeno has done several things really well. They use a “welcome block” to put additional help right in front of new customers. They offer inline, contextual help that doesn’t take your focus from the current page. And they provide links to a more traditional, full-featured help or even live support when you need it.
Another nice touch? Note how the help is clearly identified throughout Xeno with the color orange. The customer will intuitively know when they are looking at help and when they are looking at part of their web app.
Have you seen or designed a great help system? Share it in the comments!