One idea I had pitched internally awhile back but we didn't have time for in Whidbey was that of a "tutorial mode" (I couldn't think of a better term at the time) that lets you toggle a checkbox and would keep a window around to feed you helpful information about the operation/selection/whatever you were hovering over. While the F1 key does exist, there are many pieces of UI (buttons, menu items) that don't really have focus outside of being selected (activated), so there's nothing to say "I'm hitting F1 to get help on this menu item/button/etc.". Also, it's a bit cumbersome to have to hit F1 and get this out-of-band information going on - the help window that pops up takes you out of the UI flow you were performing (moving down the items in a menu, moving over the buttons in a toolbar, etc.). This "tutorial window" would update to show helpful information about the operation you were hovered over in the same way that tooltips do (you have to hold the mouse over the item for a second or two). Unlike tool tips, though, which need to be concise (read: brief) in their text, such a window could give more detailed information and (again, unlike tool tips) links you could follow to help sections giving further details or links to related sections.
I feel that many users will first sit down to VS 2005 with Team System and start glancing around the menus and trying to guess what certain items do. My real wish for the tutorial mode was that users wouldn't need to try and guess functionality based on the small number of words on the menu, but could elect to have this helpful window open during the times they're trying to 1) learn the new features 2) try to find a feature they're pretty sure is available but don't feel like searching the help for or 3) considering clicking on a menu item but aren't really sure if it's what they want to do (if you're unsure of a what operation a menu item might do and it sounds potentially destructive, it's understandable to think twice in whether or not to run it or not).
Well, in downloading the Acrylic beta just now, they seem to have that exact feature already implemented but they call it their hint palette. I'm going to have to play around with it to see how close it is to the mock-up I had described in the past, but the description seems dead on. I hope it catches on as a UI pattern, or at least we as a company get some good feedback about how well it does or doesn't work for helping users discover features about the product.
However, what do *you* think? Is such a window helpful in an IDE? Do you think you would use it, or could you see others using it? I'm sure someone out there would take this to some extreme and say "Look, they want a Clippy in VS to exclaim 'it looks like you are trying to create a stored procedure!' - ahh!" but it's much more subtle than that - try to think of it (at least my intent of it) as "extended tool tips" more than anything else... but I'm very curious whether it would have a positive impact for our customers or not.
Developers and artists are different target audiences, but I think both could extract the same benefit from a help system that was subtler, less out-of-band, and helped promote feature discovery (working here at Microsoft, it's amazing the features I've discovered in Microsoft products that I'm sure I wouldn't have working elsewhere, I fear). What do you think?
And hey, while you're at it, go download and play with the Acrylic beta!