Need Some Help with That?

One of the special pieces of the Office 2007 user interface is the entry point to the help system.

Unlike in Office 2003, in which there is a Help menu, the main entry point to Help is a single, right-aligned "international help" icon under the caption buttons. It does not change as you switch tabs in the Ribbon, and it remains on the screen even if you collapse the Ribbon.

The Help icon in the upper-right corner of the window

While this might seem at first blush to be not prevalent enough in the UI, it turns out that this actually works quite well in practice. In the usability tests we've done, 100% of people are able to find Help as easily as they could in previous versions. Despite that it's represented by a single icon, the placement and design of the icon is "right" enough that there's been no drop-off in the accessibility of help between versions.

Some of the reasons why we went with this design:

  • People tend to look for Help on the right side of the screen. (Remember in the olden days of Windows, the Help menu was actually right-aligned in the window!)

  • The icon stands alone, has an immediately recognizable and obvious design, and is in a memorable place.

  • Based on our instrumentation data in Office 2003, over 75% of users access Help through pressing F1 (or the key labeled "Help" on many modern keyboards) and not by using the Help menu. This means that a bigger button would be overkill for most people.

  • In many non-English versions of Office 2003, the Help menu is actually translated as "?". That's right, a single question mark. We decided to formalize this design in its better, iconographic form for Office 2007.

  • We believe that the fact that help is built into tooltips will provide a more contextual route into help--one that requires less searching and brings up the relevant article straight away.

The very high discoverability numbers from usability have us satisfied that every user who needs a little help will be able to find it.

Comments (23)

  1. sloan says:

    "100% of people are able to find Help as easily as they could in previous versions"

    So the question is, how "easily" did they find it in previous versions? Comparing to past results instead of ideal is rarely the way to go to make real improvement. What SHOULD your goal be? That said, I don’t necessarily think it is a bad idea. But the ENTIRE rest of their focus is on the ribbon, and now this function is grouped near a window control instead of as part of other "functions". The real question here I think isn’t success rate, but the time it takes and the amount of scanning required to find it. People in a "help me" state are already frustrated, so any barrier to finding help can make things worse.

    First suggestion would be to use a different color to help it stand out a bit more, its associative and selective so users can easily ignore it or find it and this color could key to help screens in general. Second would be to put more of a buffer between the close button and the help button as a really bad experience would be a user looking for help, and instead, accidently closing the window. Third, work on the clarity of the icon itself, the stroke around the circle interferes with the reading of the ? symbol itself.

  2. With usability results like that, I’m glad you resisted the “oh-what-can-it-hurt” argument for including a “Help” label. Every bit of useless clutter hurts. My only concern is whether the usability test included really total noob computer users who have perhaps no exposure to this icon. I would think Office would be the third most common app noobs would come in contact with, after IE and Outlook. On the other hand, I think you mentioned in another post that novices don’t use help anyway (which may be a problem, not a solution). Also, the icon’s resemblance to the international way-finding sign for Information might make it work even for these users.

  3. Bob Snyder says:

    Finding the help is not the same thing as finding something within the help.

  4. Ralph Maynard says:

    The 75% keyboard users says everything you need to know. Keyboard users are experts.  Ordinary users aren’t using it.

    When will we see a help system that is as easy to use as the one in Word 95?

  5. "Finding the help is not the same thing as finding something within the help." Right. And the post was about finding the help.

    The icon, as the first poster pointed out, seems out of place with the rest of the UI. If I’m not mistaken, it’s the exact same icon used in Office 2003. On the positive side, it does stand out.

  6. Duncan Lock says:

    First off – best blog evar! This is a shining example of a brilliant dev blog, giving a real insight into the development of one of the worlds most used and complex application suites going through a big change.

    Secondly – on the subject of help, is/will there be an alternative to the horrible split-screen, resize frenzy office help of recent versions? The one that, on slower PC’s with smaller screens, makes me wish I’d never pressed F1 on the first place? And give up, or use google instead?

    Just wondering.

    I really mean it about the blog though – great work.



  7. TC says:

    The icon does need a little work. I suggest replacing it with the Vista-style Help icon that you can see in Internet Explorer 7. Consistency is good.

  8. Andre says:

    "give up, or use google instead"

    Sad but true, if I want to find something in the MSDN I use google.

    There is an other thing I noticed about the help system in Office. The question mark in upper right corner of dialogs opens the help window instead of letting you click on a control to get context sensitive help. As my previous speaker said, "Consistency is good".

  9. Ron says:

    "Sad but true, if I want to find something in the MSDN I use google."

    To me the sad part is I have to go online to get help at all.  While Office 2003 included a local help file, it doesn’t use it by default.  I’d say 7-8 times out of 10, I’ve found my answer in the local help.

    There’s probably some way to turn off the use of online help when activating the functionality, but it doesn’t stand out.  I’d must rather see what’s in the help file first and then head out to Google for further research.

  10. Monkeyget says:

    Are there some locale for which the "?" sign is not meaningful and therefore needs a special icon? I suppose that a chunk of the 6 billion of people on this planet doesn’t use/understand that sign.

    If so, how do you address that problem?

  11. J says:

    "If so, how do you address that problem?"

    You change it in locales that wouldn’t understand it.

  12. Do you do anything to account for unintentional keypresses in your analysis of instrumentation data?  I don’t have any bright ideas about what that could be – maybe (in the case of help) discarding the visits that involved no user interaction beyond closing the window and lasted less than some short period of time.  The reason I raise the issue is that the only time I’ve gotten to the help system via F1 – and it’s quite a few – it’s been an accident because the F keys are very near the number keys on my keyboard.  If my usage were represntative – and I know it’s not – the high usage figures for F1-access to the help system would be very misleading.

  13. Lex says:

    My biggest problem with Office help is that I rarely can find my answers with it. How do I quantify that? It’s difficult but I’d say that if I use a search term in office and can’t find the answer and then use the search term in Google and find the answer via that on a Microsoft owned property – something has failed.

  14. Mike Wallop says:

    Thanks for a great blog, Jensen. As always, the mere mention of the Office help system sends people in to furious fits. People seem to have issues with almost all core functionality:

    * It’s slow

    * There’s no context-sensitive help i the dialogs

    * It’s easier to get assistance via Google than via the internal system.

    There seems to be some real room for innovation here. I hope you can address it in an upcoming version of Office.

    (And I also feel we deserve an explanation for why the ability to get help on a particular item in the dialogs via the question mark was removed)

  15. Guess Who says:

    I agree with Duncan. I am on the go and I have an out-of-date laptop. Everytime I accidentally push the F1 key, or type a question into help without thinking. It takes my laptop 5 seconds to process it, then it moves my toolbars around, shrinks the Office Window, puts it bakc to its original size. Then it has a dialog box that pops up on the right covering up 75% of my screen, then the Word window resizes to fit that. Then The help window grows another 5%, and Word readjusts its window again. It takes it a total of 3 minutes just to free up enough CPU power for me to tell it to stop.

    Just incase your wondering I’m have an IBM 360Z, which was purchased well over five years ago. It is running XP with Office 2003, so it’s slow to start with.

    Could you have Callout-boxes that walk the person through the process instead of having a fiddly window?

  16. Brian Barker says:

    "there’s been no drop-off in the accessibility of help"

    Since you brought up the issue of accessibility, what do your folks at think about replacing the easily-readable Help menu with an icon way off in one corner?

    How many times does a screen reader user have to hit Tab before the system caret arrives on the question mark?

  17. That little icon makes me think there’s a problem I need to investigate.

  18. Francis says:

    Scrapping the Help menu is a good idea. I removed it in my installation of Office 2003.

    However, I take issue with ALSO getting rid of the Office-wide "Type a question for help" box.  What will searching for keywords in the Office 2007 help system entail? A lot of clicks and flipping between tabs?

    Incidentally, the "?" menu in international versions of Windows is not all that helpful. First, it’s a finger-twister to type ALT+SHIFT+? (not to mention that the ? key skips around among international keyboard layouts.) Second, though "?" may be intuitive, it adds no benefit for foreigners. If you cannot read the language the help files are in, what does it matter that you understand how to invoke the help system? And "help" is one of the first words learnt in a foreign language, so changing "Help" to "?" is moot for second-language speakers.

    I second returning context-sensitive help to Office (e.g. "What’s this.")

  19. Michael Anderson says:

    As an intermediate user, I have to admit to being wholly unable to find the help section in Office 2007. Having eventually tracked it down, I like the design, but the majority of people I know will look for help in a dropdown.

  20. Leon says:

    A very interesting read – however its unfortunate this idea has received soo many seemingly agressive comments.  Its good to see people trying to find new and innovative ways to a UI.  Regardless some valid points have been raised:

    1) I too wondered what this would mean for accessibility – i.e. screen readers.  Is it not possible to place an invisible access route to help that screen readers would pick up early on?  This approach is used in many other formats…  

    2) As long as its obvious to the user that the help offered is context sensitive and not a static link to the default table of contents then I think having a centralised access place is a good idea.

    3) The icon – I am assuming you have investigated whether the ‘?’ is internationally acceptable already, you will always get this discussion of its validity when exchanging a label/word for an icon.  Familiarity works but I perhaps agree with earlier comments that use of the Vista styling would be good for consistency here.

    Excellent blog – I enjoyed reading it – Thanks!

Skip to main content