How to improve your help by mining user forums

User forums can be a real gold mine for finding topic ideas to round out your product's help. Often such forums receive an incredible amount of traffic. Why? Because they give users quick answers that help them complete specific tasks.

Think about it. Most users are trying to complete a specific task using your product. They don't want to dig through reference documentation to find the details. If a user can't start his lawnmower, why put him through the misery of an overview of the internal combustion engine?

A forum, however, is like asking, "Hey Carl, what's wrong with this lawnmower," and hearing "Ain't got no gas in it."

Problem solved.

Here are some ideas for turning forum conversations into help, so your users can find the answers they need right away.

Monitor recent posts

Check forums regularly for new posts. When you see one, look at the number of users who have viewed the post. Is it high compared to other posts of roughly the same age?

If a new post is receiving a lot of traffic, search your help to see if you've provided an answer already. If so, perhaps you need to revise the title so that it more closely matches the post title. Users may not be recognizing your help topic as an answer to their problem.

Write new FAQs and procedures

If the help doesn't address the issue discussed in the post, it's time to create some new help topics.

First, write a short and highly focused FAQ with a title similar to the post title in the forum. Don't argue with the evidence; the high post traffic tells you the post title is essentially on target. Clean it up, but make sure users would still recognize your topic as addressing their issue.

For conceptual problems (e.g. "Does the Date of Birth field require a 4-digit year?") a FAQ alone might be sufficient. If the forum post suggests a few steps, you should draft a procedure.

The post itself will outline the essential steps of the procedure. You'll just have to organize and edit the long-winded conversation into something elegant and more usable. When your procedure is complete, create a link from your new FAQ to your procedure.

Make your answers easy to find

Now that you have some tightly-focused topics to offer, make them easy to find. Here are some tips for doing so.

  • Organize your FAQs into a list categorized by subject matter so users can quickly navigate down to the more granular topics.
  • Make sure your FAQs can be searched from Google, not just your help viewer.
  • Put a checkbox next to the forum's Search field that says "Include product documentation in search results." Many users will prefer a well-written FAQ to a user conversation once they realize an official answer exists.
  • Ask the team responsible for maintaining the forum for a report of search keywords entered by users. When you know what phrases users are searching for, you can write your help topics appropriately.

Follow these tips and your users will soon have a greater respect for your help. They'll find the answers they need quickly without having to scroll through confusing or inconclusive forum conversations.

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