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Help functions for CMS

They say that you should read the instructions when the worst comes to the worst. We often say that there is no better advice than this, so when choosing a content management system (CMS) never underestimate the help function or manual.

Access to the help function

The first assumption is that the system actually has a help function or manual. However, there is a major difference between how accessible the help function is and how easy it is to find the information you need from it. The most basic level is a printed copy of the manual, which at best is in your drawer. In the worst case, you have no such manual. An electronic version, which can be in PDF format or an entire website, is more common. Users find it easier to have a version accessible from every page of the administration and specifically relating to what they can see on the screen in front of them.


The next level involves the help function that appears at a specific field (or control), since there is no need for a search for the question that you are dealing with. The help function is visible in a pop-up, which appears after a mouse click on the control. Alternatively, it can be accessed by clicking on a question mark or another symbol beside the control, or after clicking on the relevant field.


The easier it is to obtain access to a help function from a specific location, the lesser the need to search within it, and the easier it will be to find the answer to your question. The more comprehensive the help function – and if it is accessible only as a whole unit (at the beginning, only the whole help function can be opened) – the more important a full-text search becomes, in terms of its content and the method of presenting the results.

Arrangement of the help function

A help function with pictures (screenshots) is always more understandable than text only. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is true in this case. And a help function with an embedded video is even better. Congratulations if you can reach a specialist, who can give you advice, because this is the best solution.

A critical moment for a help function is often be the launch of the newest version of CMS, especially when the design or layout changes. Screenshots from a previous version are merely confusing.

Structure of the help function

A help function that only shows users around the system (the “Insert” function does this and that, and in this way) tends to be less useful than a help function created as a means of resolving standard situations (e.g. “when you want to insert an image, you must do….“ etc...). Ideally, a help function contains both aspects (what the system can do and how to assign tasks).

Language of the help function

Short sentences are better understood better than long ones.

The choice of words is essential for understanding the help function. The basic rule is that synonyms are not suitable. It is best to forget about the beauty and range of the language the text is written in. Instead, always use the same word for something. If one activity is referred as “Search“, it is not appropriate to call it “Look up” or “Full text”. Synonyms should be used only as “an explanation“, directly below the “standard” term used in the help function. Synonyms can also help in finding terms when users are entering other words in searches with the help function.

Continuing on with the first point, two different things should never be given the same name. This creates confusion for customers by adding ambiguity into the process. For example, if the word "file" is used for a document type like PDF or DOC, then you shouldn't use file in the instance of storing something.  The word file should not be used for any other meaning besides explaining a document type.

Obviously the concepts in the help function and inside the system should correspond. For example, if the button in the system is called “Upload“, the help function button cannot be referred to as “Insert“.

Contents of the help function

There is always a trade-off between brevity and precision. Either the text is briefer – and therefore more easily understandable – but it will omit several exceptions and is therefore not completely detailed. Longer and more detailed text includes more examples (and exceptions) and contains answers to specific questions. However, getting the results will involve more time and difficulty.

In a good help function you will also find out that the system cannot do certain things or deliberately does not do them. Often this involves information that saves operators lots of time – when users are trying, unsuccessfully, to find out how to carry out a particular activity. Unfortunately in most cases, the creators of CMS hide the fact that their systems do not know how to do something or a feature is not essential, so it does not occur to them to mention this in the help text.

In addition, the comprehensibility of the help function depends only on the experience, time, empathy and abilities of the person who designed it, any edits made to it, and feedback from CMS users.


When choosing CMS, you should definitely ask about the help functions. Find out whether they are included, what they are like and try them out and see if they are understandable and useful. I wish I did not need to say this, but there are times, when you will have no other way to find answers for your questions other than to us the help function.


Help functions for CMS


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