Should You Be Helpful at the Risk of Stating the Obvious?


There’s a fine line between being helpful and having people groan when you state the obvious.

But the two are very closely interlinked in almost every niche.

The standard first thing to do with electronics is turn them off and turn them back on again – my broadband supplier even had that as part of their initial instructions when you rang up to report a fault, before you got to the option of pressing numbers in an attempt to get through to the right department.

Back when forums were popular, the same few questions got asked over and over and over again.

Now the sticky post in Facebook groups often tries to cover how to search for common questions (use the search box!)

But that’s only obvious if you know the option is there.

The second Facebook search box – the one you need to use to search a group – only appears on the actual group page. If you’re in a group, open it up in a second tab and tab between the regular Facebook timeline and the group one. Then play a quick game of “spot the difference” with yourself.

Sure, the box is there but if you weren’t explicitly looking for it, would you see it? Or would your eye be drawn to the main group discussion? And would the search box quickly scroll away as you moved past the sticky post to the actual discussion? Always assuming you’d normally go to the group page anyway rather than rely on Facebook to give you the edited highlights of what’s been happening.

Maybe it’s not quite so obvious now?

That kind of things makes it a very fine line between sounding like a broken record (or whatever the modern equivalent of that phrase is) and actually being helpful to a reasonable number of people who’ll see the message. You might not hear the groans and the “oh no, not agains” being muttered but deep down you know they’re probably there.

The other thing is being helpful…

So often, it’s a case of you don’t get the right answer until you ask the right question.

That’s so often the case with online help systems – they try ultra hard to make sure you don’t get the chance to email a real person (or even a robot pretending to be a real person) that they put an incredible number of barriers in the way. Some of which stop you getting the right answer in first place.

Not helped when someone has decided to “improve” the site and move things round in the process but not update the help pages.

Freelancer did that recently – they changed the option to edit a project from being part of a drop-down menu to being a supposedly obvious blue button on an unrelated part of the screen. The Help system told me to check in the drop-down menu – hmm, not there. The online chat allegedly had a queue of one person in front of me but took so long that it gave up waiting and offered me the chance to send a message instead. Finally, my coder spotted where it had been moved to and after that it was simple.

1&1 Internet (who I use for a number of sites that were hosted with them before I knew any better) are based in Germany. Roll-outs of their very non-standard control panel are done as and when they get translated into English but the help pages often take months to catch up to that. Even though the development process wouldn’t have happened overnight.

It’s cases like that where stating what should be obvious is very helpful.

And at the time of writing, they still haven’t changed the German month names in the calendar (despite me reporting the issue to support, including screen shots, several months ago):

Things move around the screen or worse, like the recent-ish changes in Microsoft Office even swap menus. One of the reasons I’ve kept with a supposedly out of date version. But telling people that the previous keyboard short cuts still work brings a degree of sanity back to using the new version.

That happened with WordPress recently.

The developers thought that site users weren’t intelligent enough to work out when a word was underlined because it’s clickable versus one that’s underlined for emphasis.

I was thanked in a Facebook group when I did a quick bit of research and found that you can still underline words using the keyboard shortcut ctrl-u.

So there’s a fine line between being helpful and being a pain in the neck.

But often your list will thank you for reminders on things they should be doing but have quietly slipped out of doing.

Or for letting them know about short-cuts in the methods they could be using that will make their life a bit easier and make it more likely that things will happen to move them forward.