Most modern software has some notion of Help. It's usually non-interactive text written by a technical writer to assist users in performing tasks.
Core problems with help
- Help is not actionable. You can never actually accomplish anything from help you can only gain abstracted knowledge about how a possible solution could pertain to your situation
- Help is removed from the actual application. It's typically it's own window and has it's own user interface. To perform step-by-step instructions is difficult because you have to do window management to get see both the instructions and the application on the screen at the same time
- People learn in different ways and help only addresses one of these
- Learn by reading - help does this well
- Learn by watching - help does not do this well
- Learn by example - almost never done
- Learn by doing - only if you want to risk practicing on your actual documents
- Lastly many people use help to find functionality that they believe is in the application but they can't find it. This isn't actually help but an artifact of the fact that commands and functionality are not search-able. (Separate issue I may address in a separate article)
A different approach to help
What if help was more interactive, more actionable and more integrated into an application.
- The ability to launch a "Show Me" where you could watch the mouse move to the menu, or dialog and perform the example action you are looking for. Helps people who learn by watching.
- The ability to experiment and play within the help window with examples. For example imagine in photoshop help the ability to doodle with a particular tool or brush to get the idea of how it works. - Helps people who learn by doing.
- The ability to see a scenario or tool in use on an actual product or document. Helps people who learn by watching or learn by example.
Why people have trouble with computers?
One of the reasons people have trouble with computers is that they are afraid they will break it. People are afraid that they will get the computer into a state where they will need someone else's help to fix it and they are embarrassed to ask for this help. To alleviate some of these fears it's important to have aspects of play and experimentation within a help context. Users should feel like it's OK to screw it up because it's just a workbook, just a help file and it can't cause any damage. Once people begin to engage software and loose their initial fears it becomes easier to learn and use new features and tools.
Help files need to go beyond just documenting the features and go deeper to actually helping users get their tasks done.