Framing Help Content with Personal Pronouns
In an intriguing post earlier this year, Dustin Curtis made the case for using the second-person possessive determiner—your—when addressing users through the interface.
His post raises some interesting arguments for and against using “mine” (as in My Account, My Settings) and “your” (Your Profile, Your History), particularly in system interfaces.
Basically his arguments revolve around the issue of whether the interface is an extension of the user, or a tool that the user’s interacting with. And he ultimately decides the latter.
It’s an interesting discussion, but there are a couple of special cases where it can be helpful to cast the interface as an extension of the user. And one of them is Help content.
It’s not yours, it’s mine
The argument for having Help content take the first person (I, my, mine) rather than the second (you, yours) might seem obvious: help content is often presented as FAQs, and user questions are of course cast in the first person.
Take a look at the recently reworked 99designs’ help content and imagine these questions in the second person:
- How do I write a good design brief?
- What package should I choose for my contest?
- How do I leave comments in my contest?
These questions fit the first person because we know they’re asked in the first person. They read exactly as our inner voice says them. So to rephrase them in the second person would be passable at best, and incredibly jarring at worst.
If you choose to build a Help Centre or Support page, though, things might well end up being less personal. Google’s Drive help page is a case in point. It follows Curtis’s tool-for-interaction arguments and presents the help as topics or subjects, in the second person:
- Install Google Drive on your computer
- Enter links in a spreadsheet
- Organize your files
These shorter, topic-style headings can be easier to scan and comprehend, but what they gain in directness they pay for with personality. Google does a great job of presenting itself as a massive, impersonal behemoth, and its Drive help pages are no exception.
Evernote strikes an interesting compromise between these two options. Its footer shows three support resource categories: Support Home, Knowledge Base and Forum.
Support Home provides access to all Help resources, and it’s presented in the second person. Here, we’re interacting with the tool.
The Knowledge Base acts sort of like an index and reveals that articles within the knowledge base itself are presented like the FAQs mentioned earlier—in the first person. To my mind, this provides a human aspect to the help content, especially in the context of a page that contains other less personal elements like guide titles and device category names.
Finally, the Forums take the whole FAQ idea that step further, with—as you’d expect—real questions being asked by real people. The question threads are arranged by topic, and the formulation of thread titles is as casual as you’d expect.
The most interesting point here? The forum thread titles frequently imply the first person, but don’t use the personal pronoun I.
Nonetheless, we get the full gamut of help with Evernote, from brand-built Guides, to brand-provided help seen through the lens of a user (FAQs), to the brand’s actual customers asking for and giving one another help, as well as getting it from Evernote staff.
Help: it’s not just about you
As these examples show, help is one area where the I/you debate can get tricky. The approach you use will likely depend on the way you’re framing or presenting your help content—as quick access to common issues (a la 99designs), or as thorough product documentation (as with Drive). (As a side note, this old but still very relevant post makes the point against FAQs as product documentation.)
Beyond that issue, the way you present your help might also reflect something of your brand.
99designs is friendly, and it targets small businesses and entrepreneurs. Personal, helpful FAQs make sense here.
Google is a massive, formal web giant with a massive audience. Cold, impersonal help that gives the impression of having been set in stone by a legion of experts doesn’t seem inappropriate for this brand.
And Evernote strikes a balance between friendly and authoritative, maintaining a warmth in its help content despite using a range of means to organize and provide access to it. Evernote has extremely detailed help, and it could easily have gone the way of Google in presenting it. But it didn’t.
Do you refer to users as “I” or “you” in your help content? How does that reflect—and reflect on—your brand? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.