We often receive requests to add “help text” near a feature to help users understand how a function works, or to clarify submission guidelines for users submitting an event. While these ideas make sense on paper, it’s worth asking a few questions first:

  1. Have you demonstrably measured where the user is getting stuck, or is it just a hunch?
  2. Is this suggestion in response to a single user complaint, or many?
  3. Is there any other way to help the user understand besides adding help text?

In our experience, a text explanation rarely solves the deeper underlying problem: confusing usability. Text should be the last resort. Lots of independent research has shown that most users skim (or don’t) read on the web, especially when it comes to instructions. Nobody should be expected to read instructions to know how something works, either. Whenever we’re testing the usability of a feature, we try to make it as intuitive as possible without using any text whatsoever. We only add text when it’s in an area where we know it will be read by the majority of users, or when text truly is the best way to convey information.

Another way to put it: we design Localist to be easy enough for our grandma to figure out. Telling each user, over and over, how to get around an interface problem isn’t a solution. We instead try to create an experience that’s so easy to use, no explanation is necessary.

The type of feedback that benefits our development team the most is simply telling us where you or your users are getting stuck. We can take it from there.

Consider the following feedback we received: “I clicked “All Events” expecting to see a list of every event in the calendar, but instead it only showed me everything coming up this month. Can we put a paragraph at the top that says ‘You are viewing this month’s events only?'” In reality, this proposed solution doesn’t solve the user’s expectation of what “All Events” means. Instead, changing “All Events” to something more appropriate, like “This Month’s Events,” solves the actual problem, without adding redundant text.

Our overall approach is to think of the top two to three things a person typically does on any one page and make it abundantly clear how to do them without any additional instruction. It’s worked out well as a whole, but can sometimes seem counterintuitive if approached as a thought exercise.

In any experience design, a simple question goes a long way: “Could my grandma figure this out?”