The first help system I decided to look at was Skype, which I thought would be interesting from a technical writing and personal perspective because it’s an application I use every day to contact developers and other colleagues based in different offices across Sweden and Europe. Launched by Scandinavian entrepreneurs Niklas Zennström and Danish Janus Friis in 2003 and bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion (£6 billion) in 2011, the communication tool is now used by more than 300 million users worldwide. Although it is fairly intuitive and easy to use, I was curious to take an in-depth look at the documentation behind such a globally popular application, especially considering the diversity of its users.
To access the help system while using Skype you need to click Help and then Go To Support. This will launch the Skype Help homepage, an external site, shown below:
My first impressions were it is very clean and user friendly (there’s even a blurry friendly-looking customer service bloke in the background) with a prominent white search box and six main help topics clearly marked out with the same blue icon buttons used in Skype. While hosting the help on an external site does result in a break in user experience, the help pages retain Skype’s bold and colourful branding, with bright blues and loud yellows, so they don’t feel too far removed from the software itself.
By clicking the Windows Desktop ∨ drop-down menu, the user is able to select what kind of application (Android, iPad, Mac, Skype for TV etc) they are using to access Skype and the help adjusts itself accordingly. I thought that was pretty neat.
Another cool feature is if Skype users are having connection issues etc., by clicking Skype service status, they are taken to page with live status updates, which Skype have named Heartbeat. This is where Skype web engineers post updates, highlighting the time and dates, so users know if there is an issue which they are working on.
The stand-out feature for me though is Skype’s tutorial videos because they’re so good. Simple and to the point, between 30 and 45 seconds, they’re very watch-able, well narrated and easy to follow for people who learn by watching something being done rather than by reading. The videos can be found about halfway down the page by clicking See all guides:
The clip below is the introductory 36-second video, hosted on Youtube, which informs users how to get started by adding contacts:
This is something I’ve earmarked to add to my own documentation when I can get the software and find the time. The technology users of my generation don’t want to read through pages and pages of boring text, they want to either Google the answer or watch the video to quickly learn how something is done. Bish-bash-bosh. If done well, as shown here, I think videos are one of the best tools for explaining basic or even complex concepts quickly and efficiently.
There are several features in Skype that are slightly hidden and not particularly prominent in the help. One of these is commands that can be typed to allow the user to change settings or learn more about the participants of a chat conversation. The most helpful of these is:
/help – typing this in the chat will produce a list of available commands that can be used.
These can be used for things like finding a specific text in the chat, leaving a conversation, finding out the number of people in the chat group and the maximum number of people who can join, or even finding out user profile information about a person in your chat group. They’re slightly buried but these can be found here in the Skype help.
The other popular hidden feature are emoticons, which are a fun way to brighten up a conversation and let people know how your feeling. Interestingly, the help does document the main emoticons and their shortcuts as well as the “Hidden emoticons”, shown below, which include (drunk) and (smoking) emoticons among others:
However, the real hidden emoticons, which appeal to the immature inner child in myself and fellow colleagues, aren’t documented at all. To quote Skype, “Shhh, don’t tell anyone!”, but these include such delights as a mooning emoticon (mooning), an emoticon face mouthing “What the f**k?” (wtf) and the finger (finger), a good one for when someone in Skype chat deserves a good slap.
I guess by not documenting them they just become more fun for immature techy geeks like myself and my colleagues to find and use to entertain ourselves.
A feedback option at the bottom of most of Skype’s help pages is a great form of quality control and measuring the quality of the documentation. It also gives the user a way to interact with the technical authors who wrote the content.
If you click Yes it thanks you for your feedback, if you click No then you are able to leave feedback but selecting a predefined answer or by clicking Other, entering your own opinions on why the help failed you. It’s a pretty simple but effective way to get feedback from your readers:
As well as the feedback option, there is also another fallback for readers in the form of the “Still need help?” and “Haven’t found what you were looking for?” links at the bottom of each page which takes the user to the Skype customer service contact details. It also provides a link to the Skype Community, a forum where Skype users can both post questions and answer them to receive “kudos” and rankings, in a similar reward scheme to Tripadvisor. Skype moderators also answer questions but it’s a good way to crowd source user experience and knowledge to find the answer to certain questions.
While there are certain drawbacks in hosting help externally, rather than embedding it, I think Skype have done an excellent job. It’s stylish, innovative and fits with their product relatively seamlessly, the only negative is the break in user experience. The help itself isn’t 100% comprehensive but when I tested out the search feature, it returned answers to my questions most of the time, with only one or two failures to find an answer. However, those are both minor negatives in what is largely a positive experience. As user-facing documentation goes, this help system is hard to fault and deserves a lot of credit for its fun and innovative features.