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
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
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
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.