“The worst Help system I have ever seen”

Sarah Maddox reported from the WritersUA conference that Microsoft’s April Reagan gave a frank presentation on the planning and design that has gone into version 3 of Microsoft Help.

She was quoted as saying the feedback on the Help 2 (used in Windows Vista) was poor. For example, “This is the worst help system I have ever seen”. 

At a previous WritersUA conference, Joe Welinske reported Microsoft implemented a couple of changes when it developed the online Help for Vista. The biggest changes were (a) they developed a new Help viewer and (b) they used technical journalists instead technical authors to write the Help topics. They chose journalists because they wanted Help topics to be closer to knowledge-base articles. I’m not aware of any other major changes.

I wonder if the change in writing  style was the main cause of such negative feedback towards Vista’s Help. Users often just want to do things, and they can be best helped by short, clear chunks of text focused on getting the job done.

It will interesting to see if Microsoft changes its approach to writing, as well as the Help viewer itself,  in future releases of Windows.


T. Morrow

When I read “Users often just want to do things,….”, I couldn’t help but comment. I have worked with FrameMaker for years, and I simply refuse to open the OLH, preferring instead independent books, blogs, or other sites. The reason is that FrameMaker OLH offers long, detailed discourses instead of – as you write – “…short, clear chunks of text…”.
I would have to say the FrameMakers help system is certainly one of the worst I have ever seen.


What annoys me is that Help Authoring software often has an appalling Help system! You’d think they’d know how to do it properly…
Having said that, the wonderful ForeHelp had the best Help system I’ve ever seen.

Rachel P

L_Russell: I second that! Help Authoring software often has truly terrible help. Author-it’s is painfully bad: lots of procedures for how to do things, but no information at all about why you might want to do that thing …. or what the effects of doing it might be.

Apparently, tools designed for usability designers also have terrible usability. Maybe there’s some sort of pattern here …

Rick Stone

LOL, something like “The cobbler’s children’s shoes” or “The plumber’s leaky pipes” comes to mind with this post and these comments.

Sarah Maddox

Hallo Ellis,

Thank you for linking to my post 🙂 and also for the interesting information about Microsoft’s change from technical writers to technical journalists when creating Help 2.

At the WritersUA session, one of the most-discussed drawbacks in Help 2 was the plethora of topics that come back when you search for information, and the uneasy mix between local information and internet-based information, sometimes resulting even in a double table of contents. It’s basically unusable.

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