Help is broken?

Are we at the point when we need to acknowledge that classic online Help files are not working as well as they should – that is, as the primary source of information to assist users when they get stuck?

This is not a Don Draper “why I’m quitting tobacco” moment, and this is not a criticism of the Help Authoring Tool vendors. Instead, it’s a proposal that, in some situations, what is delivered as online Help needs to be substantially modified to meet the needs of many modern technologies and users.

What’s wrong with Help? Help is often a “walled garden” in an Internet-era built on knowledge sharing and collaboration. Usability in relation to the user interface can be poor at times. It’s hard to measure its value and the ROI. Even its purpose can be vague to some project managers. Unfortunately, there’s often just not enough time to make significant improvements. We could go on.

Many users still get stuck, and many products still fail to work when they’re linked to another. Words still are a key way of communicating and teaching users. We still need to assist users and we still need some form of Help. It could be a useful tool in “evangelism marketing”. It could do so much more. This is why we’re suggesting it’s time to take a strategic look at what and how we can provide Help for when users get stuck.

What do you think?


Steve Mundy

Personally, I don’t think you should have to wade through a knowledge base to get to the help or vice versa. I think software should have a help menu in which one has a help option that goes straight to the help and a knowledge base option which points to the knowledge base. All too often, recent applications have had far less effective help due to this issue.


Interesting points. I’m thinking of several large software companies that have made huge efforts to break down the walled gardens of online help – Adobe & Microsoft spring to mind – that in many cases have served to confuse end users in search of snappy answers to simple questions.

Ask RoboHelp how you add a cover page to a PDF layout and you get a mess of results from help, blogs, forums, knowledge base, etc, covering different software versions. Which is fantastic for completists, less good for people trying to accomplish something quickly.

…and it’s actually quite hard to find the Support Forums if that’s what you want to do.

Shona Isbister

I think Help needs to move away from the traditional linear type models (table of contents, menus and so forth) and move towards more of a wiki structure. I imiagine Help as a web rather than a section in a document, with the search term as the central point and related topics as ever-increasing circles, if that makes sense.

I agree with Steve that all Help should be case sensitive as a matter of course. Furthermore, I think it should open at text (the ‘answer’) rather than a hyperlinked menu to search through. Hyperlinks to other stuff can be listed on the same page, but afterwards. There’s nothing more frustrating than feeling like you’re digging out the needle in the haystack!

Fundamentally it must be remembered that users want information in small chunks, and they want control of where they navigate to next. As anyone who has lost a couple of hours to Wikipedia will attest!

Shona Isbister

erm, that should be *imagine* and *context* sensitive!!

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