The T-Bot: A new Help model from Microsoft

This month, Microsoft has added Microsoft Teams to Office 365. It’s a instant messaging collaboration tool, similar to Slack. Teams contains the T-Bot, which provides help and assistance to users.

T-Bot main screen

Users can watch videos:

T-Bot Help videos

They can read online Help:

T-Bot online Help

They can read an FAQ:


They can ask the T-Bot a question and receive an answer. The T-Bot initially provides the same answers as the FAQ. If it doesn’t know the answer, it will suggest some articles from the Help:

:T-Bot Question and Answer

Do you think this way of helping users is good? Share your thoughts, using the comments form below.

Getting users to read the Help rather than call support

We spotted an interesting statement by the “Father of Behaviour Design”, BJ Fogg:

“For somebody to do something – whether it’s buying a car, checking an email, or doing 20 press-ups – three things must happen at once.

The person must want to do it, they must be able to, and they must be prompted to do it.

A trigger – the prompt for the action – is effective only when the person is highly motivated, or the task is very easy. If the task is hard, people end up frustrated; if they’re not motivated, they get annoyed.”

See Ian Leslie’s article “The scientists who make apps addictive“.

If we want users to read Help text instead of calling the support line, then we maybe we need to meet those three criteria.

We can assume the user is motivated to fix their problem.

We can write instructions that are clear enough to make them able to solve the problem.

Where some applications fall down is they don’t prompt the user to read the online Help. The link to the Help text is often tucked away in the right hand corner of the screen.

Instead, we could put some of the Help text into the User Interface or the dialog screens,  and we could prompt the user to follow a link to more information. Doing this could get users to read the online Help rather than call support.

How to create online Help topics that are editable by clients

In the Agile Technical Writers forum on LinkedIn, one of its members posted this question:

“I need to create an contextual online help for an complex web tool (ok, that´s not that hard). The customer must be able to add some specific job instructions to this online help by himself. The customer part must not be overridden when the online help is updated.”

LinkedIn’s forums provide limited functionality for long replies, so I thought I’d answer the question in more depth on our blog.

There are three main approaches you can take:

  1. Transclusion
  2. Appending content to the bottom of a page
  3. Embedding empty placeholder topics within topics (which the client can use to add content)

You can also simply link to an external topic. However, in this case, they wanted the user content to appear with the official content.


In the DITA authoring standard, transclusion is called content referencing (or conref for short). It enables you to insert information from one topic into another. This means you can add customised content to a topic without having to make any changes to that target topic. You specify how the information is pushed into the existing topic: Insert the information just before an element;  insert the information just after an element; or replace the information contained in an element. One of its strengths is, if you are adding new items to a list of steps, the list will renumber automatically.

Here is an illustration from our DITA training course:

conref example

The downside is writers need to be familiar with DITA, or be given a template to use.

Appending content to the bottom of a page

A common approach is to enable users to add comments and additional information at the bottom of each topic. This is the approach taken by tools such as Confluence, Mindtouch and MadCap Pulse.

madcap pulse main screen

This can work well. However, the information can be missed by it being at the bottom of the page, and if there are too many comments.

Embedding empty placeholder topics within topics

Another approach is to have empty topics within each topic. The two topics can be concatenated (joined) together to form a single topic. The client can add any client-specific content into the empty placeholder topic, so they don’t need to touch the topic containing the official content. This is sometimes called embedding topics within topics.

Here is an example of how local branch information is added to official documentation on fire safety procedures:

embedded topic example

The advantage of this approach is that it can be done with simpler authoring tools than DITA (like markdown). The disadvantage is that you may not be able to preview the final topic (to do that, you’ll need to generate the whole document), and it won’t work as well for inserting content into numbered lists.

Do you use a different method?

Please share your thoughts below.

Google adds conversational search-by-voice to Chrome’s Help

Chrome Help Search window with microphone optionGoogle has updated Chrome in build 27 to include conversational voice search, and this feature extends to the Help pages.

According to TechCrunch, it transcribes your queries in real time. It also lets you use natural language, asking Google straightforward questions and getting straightforward answers, both read back to you by dictation and in actual Google search results.

Based on a few initial tests, for South East English accents, it works really well.

Does looking at online Help make users forget?

Treasury at Petra, JordanOver the weekend, Dr Chris Atherton suggested I look at “the doorway effect”. You may well have experienced walking through a doorway and then finding you’d forgotten why you’d stood up in the first place.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame have discovered your brain is not to blame for your confusion about what you’re doing in a new room – the doorway itself is.



From Scientific American:

The researchers say that when you pass through a doorway, your mind compartmentalizes your actions into separate episodes. Having moved into a new episode, the brain archives the previous one, making it less available for access.

The doorway can be a virtual doorway as well as a physical doorway. The researchers’ experiments involved seating participants in front of a computer screen running a video game.

So is this effect also happening when users need to leave a screen in a software application and read Help – be it delivered as a .CHM file, on a Web site or on paper?

The solution? If we deliver User Assistance (Help) in a way that it is actually located within the application screens, not only can we minimise the need for users having to go through a virtual door, we can also embed the learning into the users’ specific situations.

More: Scientific American article

Introducing the Head Up Display. Say hello to the future of the menu

The Ubuntu operating system is to replace its application menus with a  “head-up display” (HUD) box. According to Mark Shuttleworth, Lead design and product strategy person at the company behind Ubuntu:

We can search through everything we know about the menu, including descriptive help text, so pretty soon you will be able to find a menu entry using only vaguely related text (imagine finding an entry called Preferences when you search for “settings”).


One of the comments states:

I suspect that applications will need to give help documentation a more significant place in the development of the application than it currently enjoys. Help seems the logical place to embed command discovery in such a system especially in connection with a capacity for fuzzy searches.