Help Is For Experts

One of the most interesting epiphanies I've had over the last few years seems on
the surface like a paradox: "help" in Office is mostly used by experts and

How can this be?  I think my biased assumption was that experts know how to
use the software already and eager novices would be poring over the
documentation trying to learn how to be more effective using it.

Yet, in usability tests we see it again and again: novices and intermediates
click around and experiment, experts try to reason things out and look them up
in help.

Why is that?  I don't know the answer, but I can speculate.

Most help today is designed around the model of answering a question.  You
type the keyword into the search box, or browse through an index, and an
explanatory article comes up.  So far, so good--assuming you know exactly
the name of the command or concept you want to look up.  Unfortunately,
this is something experts are far more likely to be in tune with.

So, maybe you don't know the term "mail merge", but the help system is smart and
you type "print holiday letter" and it brings up "mail merge" as a possible hit. 
You still have to recognize that "mail merge" is the right answer to "print
holiday letter."

Help me!

I think help is getting better at linking people to articles that are more
around scenarios and walkthroughs, but the terminology barrier is still
there--and experts are the people most likely to know the "magic" words to bring
up what they're looking for.

Another reason help tends to not be used by beginners may be that help is not
really conducive to learning.  It's more like a recipe than a community
college course.  The official line on manuals is "no one reads manuals" and
maybe that's true, but there are a lot of people buying books to learn
how to use software.  (There's even a popular series of books called
"missing manuals.")

A book is way better than help if you're trying to become familiar with a piece
of software--it has a narrative, it might be funny sometimes, you can take it
into your bed with you, and it's designed to teach, not to troubleshoot.

The night more than two years ago when I decided to leave Outlook and take the
job working on the Office user interface, my first action was to go Barnes &
Noble and buy a thick book about Excel.  I felt like I knew it less well
than Word and PowerPoint, and I wanted to learn everything it was capable of. 
It's no surprise I didn't press F1 instead; that's not really what traditional
"help" was designed for.

Help also requires a context switch today.  The process of experimenting
with the product to see what is in it and what it's capable of is totally
removed from opening the help window and looking inside to see articles are in
there.  To the extent that people learn the software through playing with
it, they never experience the value of help.  The product organization and
the help organization are two different, often non-complementary, attempts to
rationalize the capability of the software.  We haven't done a good job of
building the right bridges between them.

Of course, there may be a lot of other factors which contribute to the varied
usage of help.  For instance, no one really needs an article on "Bold";
perhaps experts use more of the powerful and involved features, and thus benefit
from the help system more.

Alan Cooper talks about "perpetual intermediates" in
Inmates Are Running the Asylum
.  The idea, paraphrased, is that
most people using software are "intermediates."  Beginners don't stay that
way for long, but most people don't have the time, energy, or desire to become
truly elite "experts."  I believe that it is precisely these intermediates
who don't rely on the help system.  In fact, they might be defined by their
general unwillingness to look features up in the "command encyclopedia." 
Experience shows that intermediates tend to explore the product, not the help

None of this is intended as a specific dig against help by the way.  I do
think that help can continue to improve, and for sure the internet community
itself is the world's most powerful help system. 
Office Online in particular is a
second-to-none portal for all things Office, and they really have pushed the
bounds of what you can do in creating community around assistance, templates,
support, and learning.  In fact, I'm actually bullish on help, and later
this week I'll introduce how we've integrated it into the Ribbon in an attempt
to introduce even more people to help.

But it's worth noting that if you're authoring your help system for newcomers,
you might be designing for the wrong kind of person. 

Comments (45)
  1. Universalis says:

    I agree with you. The rush to bytes and away from books has been greatly overdone and that’s why no-one can find anything in software any more.

    The key is that a book doesn’t have to be the ONLY source of information. It should give you understanding of how the software thinks. Then the help can fill in click-by-click details if you need them. The latest release of Cardbox comes with a 300-page colour book for just this reason: it’s also heavy enough to cause injury if you throw it at someone, which saves having to throw telephones.

    What is your view of the abandonment of dialog box help in Office products? Example: if I open the Find and Replace dialog box in Word 2002 then I can get help on individual items within it (a simple popup with no links to anything) or if I press F1 then I get Microsoft Word Help saying "Type your question here and then click Search." There is no way that I can get help on the Find and Replace dialog box!

    I am old enough to remember Word 2.0, where F1 gave you context-sensitive help for dialog boxes and even some messages, and I’m kind of lost without it. Am I just too old for today’s computers?

  2. ChrisC says:


    I think that most people who began using computers in the late 90’s or after will think that this is a profound and well written post.

    However, you are missing a bit of historical perspective IMHO. There are two main reasons that the official line on manuals at MS is that "no one reads manuals".

    Crap, I got`a run.

    Here they are quickly and I’ll put in more details later if no one else says what I’m thinking.

    (1) Price to the consumer

    (2) BillG PR snafu (I have evidence for the PR part but the fact that it’s a snafu is, of course, my opinion)

    (There are some minor points too 🙂

  3. ChrisC says:

    Crap, I shouldn’t try to do this at work 🙁

    One more quick post to say that I meant to compliment you on your observations and add a little perspective from my viewpoint… didn’t mean to only bust on you. I just think that they’d be slightly different if your worked outside MS around, uh maybe `93-96.

    +Cooper is great isn’t he?

    (no age bias intended… I’m under 40 if that helps 🙂

  4. Gabe says:

    It’s been my experience that Office help often doesn’t include anything useful, so I don’t use it. For example, I was using Access and somehow became aware of the DoCmd object. It seemed like it would do what I want, but there is no help for it. How could this object with 100 different features have no online help?

    Luckily Google came to the rescue, pointing me directly to the page telling me all about it. Why wasn’t the included in the help originally?

    Another problem is that the results from a search appear to be randomized. I’m sure there is some specific order, but I’ll damned if I can figure it out. For example, I wanted a list of operators available in Excel, so I asked for help on "operators". The first thing that popped up was help on the "OR function", which is not an operator, and not even the first function that I would expect to be an operator. It turns out that I wanted "About calculation operators", which was 4th in a list of 14 (of which maybe 3 were actually about operators).

    What makes the meaningless list of search results even worse is that they have no context. There is no indication of what part of the program a given article applies to.

    Furthermore, important topics are often not hyperlinked. For example, I needed to remove all of the asterisks from a spreadsheet, so I just did a find and replace in Excel. I knew that if I searched for "*" and left the replace field blank that it would do what I need. Of course, it just deleted the spreadsheet. So I looked up help on "search and replace" and it took me to the proper help topic which was useless to me because all it did was describe what searching and replacing could do. It also noted that I could use wildcards, but did not tell me what the wildcard characters are or how to search for them. I would expect to be able to click on "wildcard" and have it jump to the topic, rather than having to find it in the list.

  5. Tyler Ruddun says:

    I stoped using office help around Office 98, at that point it time it became invasive and hard to use. I dread hitting F1 in Word, knowing that it will result in a minute or two load time, my window being moved around to fit the help on screen thus hiding the bit I was trying to use help for.

    And after all that, I just can’t look up something, I have to go through the search. Usualy I start at the bottom of the results as that’s where what I want really is.

    Help is very unhelpfull in Office.

  6. Pazu says:

    Help should definitely work as WIKI – of course marking with bold line what comes form MSFT and what comes from crowd. Definitely the main task of help is to answer the question "what this particular button, checkbox, scroller, menuitem DOES ?". I hate that in O2K3 the feature "What is this" disappeared. On the other hand some "scenarios" and "cookbooks" and "articles" should definitely disappear.

  7. J says:

    Online help is neat. I once found an Excel function in the help that required I install one of the add-in tools to use it, but the help didn’t mention this add-in at all. So I did a google search and found out what I needed to do to use this function. Well, luckily the online help has a "comments" section for each help sheet, and I entered a comment that said the help should mention that you need to install an add-in to use this function. Sure enough, I checked a few weeks later and the help page had been updated with the additional information I provided. It was nice to see that my comments actually had an effect to improve the help system.

  8. jensenh says:


    That’s a great story… that’s the whole point of the online help, that it can get better over time. Hopefully there’s a lot of this going on!

    Someone mentioned wiki above… I guess the online help system in Office 2003 is kind of a moderated wiki of sorts… (which some would say is no wiki at all… 🙂 )

  9. Matt says:

    I have to agree that the online help in Office is not the best. It is a great product, but when I need help I usually give up after examining the first 50 hits and the move directly to Google. I agree with everything Gabe and Tyler wrote.

  10. Dale says:

    I keep Office 97 on my PC just for the help.

    I find the help in 2003 is too confusing with far too many results to a question. 97 is straight to the point.

  11. Patrick says:

    Should I watch for Jensen’s book on the new Office UI then in bookstores next year? 🙂

  12. jojjo says:

    Oops, accidentally hit Enter. What I was about to say was that I miss the ability to click on an object in the dialog box and get context sensitive help. One of the most discoverable interfaces I’ve seen! If I press the question mark today I just get some meaningless search result that I could just as easily have gotten from Google.

    Sorry to sound so negative, but it really bugs me that the help system is the only part of the interface that I can’t seem to understand how to use.

  13. MikeKelly says:

    Universalis asks: "What is your view of the abandonment of dialog box help in Office products? Example: if I open the Find and Replace dialog box in Word 2002 then I can get help on individual items within it (a simple popup with no links to anything) or if I press F1 then I get Microsoft Word Help saying "Type your question here and then click Search." There is no way that I can get help on the Find and Replace dialog box!

    I am old enough to remember Word 2.0, where F1 gave you context-sensitive help for dialog boxes and even some messages, and I’m kind of lost without it. Am I just too old for today’s computers? "

    You’ll be happy to know that we are supporting F1 from dialogs in Office applications. There was a technical reason why it was difficult to do in 2003 that we fixed in 12. So while you won’t always see context-sensitive links when you press F1, you will always get to help where you can search and we will do context-sensitive links for the most common dialogs (one of the other advantages of online help – we know what are the most popular searches and context-sensitive requests and can focus on improving those first).

    Another comment regarded the random search results order. We hope they aren’t too random! In fact, they are ordered by "relevance" which is a measure of the content of the topic to the query. That’s why using more words in your query ("type a question for help" – not a word) may help improve your results. You’re giving the relevance engine more to work with.

    Thanks for the comments.

  14. Kevin says:


    Maybe the experts are experts because they took the time to navigate through help to learn the product.

  15. Jeff Parker says:

    Me being a developer I am spoiled anymore. Visual Studio has the best help system. However, sometimes users (we still have accountants, secretaries, etc) will come and ask me for questions on Excel or Word. Basically IT people are their help. Now over the years I have seen office’s help get worse and worse. It’s always extremely slow and invasive. 90% of the time I need help in undoing something that office decided I needed help doing.

    Another example is, some of the things that office wants to help me do I do not use and do not want to use. I need help in turning them off. Now I use Front Page, it is the best thing out there for making html files to make into my own chm help files. However for literally years and multiple versions copy and paste always had that dang floating clip board that popped up in my way constantly. I do not want that clip board you have no idea how many times I have clicked it on accident, or god forbid you get more than 10 items in there then every time you do a copy you get a grey box telling you your clipboard is full. To me Microsoft made one of the most simple things such as copy and paste one of the most difficult things by putting some floating icon out there. Well I could not ever find out how to get rid of it, help was of no help, it doesn’t tell you how to turn off stuff only turn it on. Finally I just got used to ctrl+C ctrl+V and still to this day it is rare I right click to copy and paste.

    Anyway one day I don’t quite remember but I got furious with this clipboard thing I was looking for office 97 to install. I was looking at word perfect again. I spend 6 hours digging through every setting in front page, every menu, everything pouring through help in front page, pouring through online help for front page. Impossible to google search for, ever google search for copy paste icon clipboard I had no idea what to call it. Finally after searching and searching and reading threads and message boards I finally figured it out, to turn off that dang clipboard icon thing in Front Page, you must open Word, go to tools, option, edit, and well in 2000 there was another button in there to click but 2003 had it on the edit tab in Word. Still to this day there is no way to shut off the annoying clip board thing which appears in Outlook, Front Page, Access, wherever else in office without going into Word. While I use office, Visio, Front Page, One Note. I never go into word. It is not one of the programs I normally use. At least clippy was smart enough to know after I killed him a few times that he would notice that I killed him several times and really wanted to shut him off. The funniest part of this story is my boss asked me why I wrote down 6 hours miscellaneous in my code time report. I told him I spent that time trying to figure out how to turn off the dang clip board thing. His eyes lit up and said You can turn it off, please show me how I hate that thing.

    Anyway the moral of the story: Help in office needs to not only be about helping people get things done but helping people get the features out of the way that interfere with their work. Honestly it is not all about the features for me in office. Someday I will figure out how to turn off some of the other annoying things in office. At least now I can type format and get everything done in Notepad, copy and paste into word to spell check.

  16. Gabe says:

    First, I would like everybody to carify what they mean when they refer to "online" help. I always thought that online help was what shipped in the help file and was shown when you press F1, while offline help was something that you found in a book. It seems that now "online" has been changed to mean what shows up on the Internet. If so, then what do you call the help that shows up when you press F1?

    Regarding relevance, I would suggest adopting Google’s algorithms for ranking. A Google search for "Excel operators" yields what I was looking for ("About calculation operators") as the second hit from Microsoft, with another relevant document (differences between 1-2-3 and Excel operators) being first. Excel 2002’s help gives rankings 4 and 14 respectively, with most of the other hits having nothing whatsoever to do with operators. How can 3 articles that don’t contain the word I’m searching for be more relevant than the article which has the word in its title and contains it 28 times? At least in this case, more words would not help; "What operators can I use in a formula" does not yield any different results than just "operators".

  17. Anas Hashmi says:

    hey jensen,

    one thing you should note is that there is a reason experts are experts in the first place. In "Ask Marilyn" from Parade magazine, someone writes to her and asks what makes a person smart. Marilyn vos Savant replies the one who know where to look for info.

    No one knows everything in the world and no one should know everything. They should know though on how to know. The reason experts are experts is because they are smart enough to think of "help" in the first place.

  18. I read this post with great interest. The comments posted so far are also very insightful. I’d like to summarize some of the points I felt to be particularly salient as well as add a few of my own thoughts.

    *There are plenty of people that buy books but do not read them. Just pointing out that sometimes even the format of help docs can’t offset people’s aversion to reading or refusal to dedicate time and energy to something when they can limp along without doing so.

    *I kept hoping Jensen would take credit for what I think is easily the best improvement to online help in office since clippy (joke): integrating help into the apps via expanded “tooltips” directly in the galleries. I’m really looking forward to this.

    *I practically never use online help. However, I literally live and die by Google Groups. I am almost never the only person to encounter a problem or misunderstand a feature and Google Groups usually proves a much faster route to success. Someone mentioned making online help include a Wiki format. I couldn’t have come up with a better way to merge Google Groups with MS online help.

    *If help takes longer to load than a browser window takes to open, we have a problem.

    *There’s been lots of talk about F1 and dialogs. I’m glad to see that feature come back.

    *Regarding one post’s comments about the fantastic Visual Studio online help (wherein positioning the cursor on a method/property and press F1 automatically opens relevant help files), what about a right-click option in the ribbon for immediate help on a feature? It’s not as cut and dry as Visual Studio, but it might be worth a little user testing.

    Another thought provoking post. Thanks!

  19. LarryOsterman says:

    My personal take is that help stopped being for novices when they pulled the manuals out of the box.

    I used to pour over the text manuals for the C runtime library and the various office applications, devouring every word (no pun intended). As a result, I had a pretty good idea of the capabilities of the product and even if I didn’t, I knew (more-or-less) where to go to find what I needed (Hmm, I remember seing something about that in volume 3)

    But since Microsoft stopped including paper copies, I don’t bother with help any more – msn search is my help system these days.

    Personally I think it’s a shame. I understand the reasons for it (books are heavy and expensive), but it’s still a shame. I MISS the feel of a book in my hand.

  20. Tim Dawson says:

    "Most help today is designed around the model of answering a question."

    No it isn’t. Office help is done this way, and it sucks. I can’t think of a single time it has helped me.

  21. Jeff Parker says:

    You know Andrew, you got me thinking. There has to be a way some of the VS help features could be in word. For example you could click once on something in the ribbon it move your mouse over it or Right click it or something. Something that would pull up information ditectly on the button you click on.

  22. Frederik Slijkerman says:

    As other people have said, the help system in Office 97 was excellent, but sadly it has only been going downhill since then. What I want from a help system is a clear, well-organized table of contents, an easy to use help index, and full-text search. What I DON’T want is a box to type a question in natural language, a help system that resizes the main window whenever it appears, etc. Basically all the changes since Office 97 have made the help worse. Sad but true.

  23. PatriotB says:

    Office introduced some trends in Help which, unfortunately, have spread into other apps and Windows itself.

    For one: Office 2003 repurposes the "?" context-sensitive help button in dialog boxes. Instead of being able to use it to look up help on a particular button/control ("what’s this" help), it opens up a help pane (resizing your app in the process), and makes you dig through several levels before you find help on that button/control.

    Vista is taking this one step further, removing the "?" button from virtually every dialog box. Personally, as a power user, I use "what’s this" help quite a bit. If there’s a list of check boxes and it isn’t clear what one of them does, I’ll use context-sensitive help to find out. I don’t want to have to dig through a help file, I just want help on one control.

    The Assistance Platform team has a (rarely-updated) blog, and I comment further on this on one of their entries:

  24. Helen says:

    "*If help takes longer to load than a browser window takes to open, we have a problem."

    "What I DON’T want is […] a help system that resizes the main window whenever it appears."

    Hear, hear!

    I have stopped using help in Office and just rely on Google. The replies are more relevant and better sorted, and it’s faster. Even if the answer turns out to reside on the Office Assistance site, it’s easier to find it there with Google. (And let’s not even mention the documentation for VS2005 that takes at least 10 seconds to start on my home PC.)

    In fact I’ve disabled the F1 key in Excel because it’s too close to F2 and Esc (both very important keys). I kept hitting it by accident and then had to spend time closing it.

    On a more UI-related topic, the Assistance Pane in Office 2003 (and all the other task panes) suffer from one major annoyance: there doesn’t seem to be a keyboard shortcut for closing them. I can hit Esc to get back to the spreadsheet / document, but the pane stays there. Anything that can be brought up with a single key press should also be closeable through the keyboard.

    But since task panes will not have such a central role in Office12 I’m hoping that this won’t be occurring in O12!

  25. jensenh says:

    Mike Kelly from Office Online has a blog here: (he also posted comments above). This details some of the ongoing work that’s being done with help in Office 12.

  26. Joel Dinda says:

    Another case where your software comment seems unaware that there’s a larger context. (I zinged you about that last week, too.) Don’t mean to pick on you about it, but perhaps you software designers need to spend some time in a real office.

    A story: My wife, whose title is "lead worker," spends much of her day answering other folks’ questions. Her normal response is to reach for the appropriate manual, locate the relevant page, and read the answer to the questioner. Sometimes she makes them read it to her, just for variety.

    Here’s the really odd thing: Twenty years ago I had Joan’s job, and I was doing the same thing. Same questioners, same questions, same manuals. Really. There’s a clue in this story about something.

    I don’t think a help system can fix that. I *do* think Office’s help system could be more helpful for those of us who actually do use it. My personal complaints pretty much match the ones which have already been listed. Obviously you folks are giving that some thought, which is encouraging.

    Despite the cheap shot at the top of this note, I love your blog. Thanks for the work.

  27. alan manson says:

    I think the real reason only expert users use help is that you have to be an expert to understand the system.

    Office is a great collection of software, but the comments above really should give you a hint: the help system is broken and unhelpful. If even the readers of a blog about the Office user interface can’t figure it out there is something seriously wrong with it.

    I agree with the posters who claimed the help system has gotten worse with every version during the last ten years.

  28. dylan anderson says:

    >That’s why using more words in your query

    >("type a question for help" – not a word) may

    >help improve your results.

    One of the most important usability guidelines is that software should behave like users expect it to behave. The problem with the Office approach to help – asking questions with natural language – is that this isn’t how people are used to interact with computers. I seem to recall that the majority of querys on Google are one word queries. Why would you expect that your users behave differently?

    I miss the old WinHelp dialogs – intuitive contents, a fast index, and a fulltext search. I don’t understand today’s system at all. And it’s to slow to be usable. I use Google Groups instead.

  29. Centaur says:

    It might be interesting to see an application that, when asked for context-sensitive or AnswerWizard-like help, would open a browser window with an appropriate Google query 🙂 (Of course, this assumes that the user has an Internet connection so some kind of offline help is also needed.)

  30. MSDNArchive says:

    I’m sure you mean an MSN Search query.

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