Users helping users

03Mar08

I recently filed my taxes online, which I have been doing for years. The product I use is very well-designed, with easy navigation and excellent help text on each page. But they added something weird this year: a sidebar that tries to provide contextual help for the feature you’re using. This would be fine, except the questions are pulled from some sort of user forum — and very few of them even have an answer posted.

Right after I saw this useless and annoying widget, I tried to turn it off. I looked for a Close or Hide button, but there was nothing of the sort. Ironically, I noticed that the sidebar had my very question right on its list of relevant info. And the answer? Well, at least according to the person who answered it, you can’t turn off the sidebar. It’s with you no matter what. I can’t say for sure if this is true, since there’s no way to tell if the people writing responses are just random users or actually work for the company.

On the one hand, I applaud the product designers for trying to incorporate user-generated tips into their software. But on the other hand, the way they force the feature on you is pretty poor. Plus, the content is low-value: I’d estimate that at least two-thirds of the questions I tried to answer with the sidebar had been posed by someone, only to sit there unanswered. And even if there was an answer, it was impossible to determine the credibility of that response.

So if you’re considering this type of feature for your own software, I’d recommend that you assign an experienced staff member to answer difficult questions and validate the accuracy of customer responses to the more basic ones. And while you’re at it, give people a way to turn the damn thing off. Some users just aren’t interested in reading about the tax woes of Stevie6189 from Omaha.



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