Tuesday, April 9, 2013

H is for Help

Stock Photos: Helicopter Picture. Image: 153343
© Photographer Razvan Oncescu | Agency: Dreamstime.com

An important businessman visiting Seattle was being whisked to important business meetings by private helicopter.

Mid flight, thick fog descended suddenly on the city. The pilot swore. Nothing was visible outside and his navigation instruments chose that moment to malfunction. He admitted that they were lost. He inched forward in the fog, until at last the lights of a tall building loomed ahead. Approaching closer, they could see people working in the building.

The businessman rummaged in his briefcase for paper and pen, and held up a sign in the helicopter window which read, "Where are we?"

Quick as a flash, a man in the nearby building held up a sign which said, "You are in a helicopter."

The businessman swore, but the pilot smiled, wheeled the craft around, and ten minutes later landed at their destination.

"We were lost," the businessman said. "How did you know where we were?"

"When I saw their sign," the pilot replied, "I knew we were at the Microsoft building. Their help was technically accurate, but completely useless."

Many help systems are really lists of technical reference topics. They assume you already know about the topics being discussed and just want some esoteric command or bit of syntax that you'd forgotten. In other words, they are no help unless you already know an awful lot about what you are trying to do.

Help needs to address many audiences, at different levels of expertise, and needs to answer more than the bread-and-butter "How to" type questions.

Sadly, the less-than-helpful variety proliferates because it is the easiest to write.

Make sure your help is helpful.


  1. This is exactly true. I'm a bit thick when it comes to many technical matters and if I need to do something, I want step-by-step instructions in plain English. Seems that is too much to ask for a lot of the time.

  2. I think sometimes the fact that we non techie folk don't really know how to ask the question is a good part of getting an unsatisfactory answer lol.

  3. In my experience, a simple and intuitive software design should need very little instruction. When designing a helpful manual, if you can't explain something simply, then you don't know enough about it.

  4. Nick, I find a lot of help OK for step-by-step instructions, but that only helps once I've understood that this is the set of instructions I need rather than some other set.

    Delores, IMO that should not be the end-user's problem :)

    Diane, that's true, but my biggest peeve is the absence of the kind of help I often need. I don't want to know "how to" until I've understood "what" and "why". For example, I once wanted to know about pivot tables. I found lots of things on how to create them, edit them etc. but nothing to say what a pivot table is and why should I care! It's a different level of inquiry, and that's where the gap is.

  5. I thought this was going to be about the book "The Help" but I enjoyed the post nonetheless.

  6. Hi Ian .. what a great post .. fun to read and think about - someone in Seattle won't be so pleased .. but it's amused the rest of the world!!

    Cheers Hilary

  7. LOL. And that's why I turn to google. Google knows. =)


I love comments. Please feel free to join in the discussion.

I also try to respond to comments. I usually do so during the early evening (Pacific time) which may be many hours away from now!

So if you leave a comment and return some time later and I haven't responded yet, please don't think I'm ignoring you. I'm not. Honest.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...