Google is the Help Menu

Jensen Harris recently cited some Microsoft Office usability research which produced a rather counter-intuitive result:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

So I bought this software that lets me connect to the internet, but I can’t seem to get it to work. Luckily the help files are online. Doh!

I still think some combination of local help and community is useful. In general, people don’t write about how to do the easy things as much as they do about the hard things. I sometimes find the answer in help files faster than in Google. Other times, I don’t.

I really think you need to provide some help files AND build a community. Documentation as whole is almost always piss poor. So why not focus on both?

When office moved their help online, it added a two second delay to every refresh. It drives me crazy.

Remote help is for big questsion, local, snappy, fast help for looking up the name of a function or a key shortcut.

When office moved their help online, it added a two second delay to every refresh.

That’s true, but on the other hand it’s WAYYY faster to search MSDN ( ) through Google (or MSN Search) than it is to use MSDN’s built-in search functions.

Here’s an amusing anecdote about MSDN help:

“Once you find a topic you like, see what’s around it. We did a usability study once and found that almost no one uses the table of contents to find what they’re looking for in the docs. Unfortunately, this is one of the BEST ways to find things.”

They also recommend using an external search engine to search MSDN rather than the integrated search. AND they recommend asking experts and looking at blogs.

They pretty much recommend everything except using MSDN. Which goes to show just how deep the rot is. And in a sense, it’s like pagerank: can you really trust the parent company’s content to be objective about itself? Not really. The best sources of help are sometimes the best BECAUSE they’re external sources. Internal help just has too much baggage.

Jeff -

Yes. YES! This is so true. My favorite development tool, Delphi, could really benefit from a help system that let the community get involved.

Well, since you asked, here’s the Wiki front page:

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Here’s the FTB_API page, which one would think would tell one about how to access the API and what sorts of things might be there:

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Here’s the “Major FreeTextBox JavaScript Functions”:

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And they are definitely only a subset of the major ones if you look through the source, which we have the ability to do because we paid for it. Woe to anyone who doesn’t shell out the dough.

And this page about creating custom toolbar items tells you oh-so-helpfully how to create a button that inserts the phrase “FreeTextBox is great!!” into your editor. Try to do anything more complex than that and it’s to the forums.

The forums, however, are by far the worst part of the FreeTextBox community. Do a search for something pretty common, like say setting a default font for the design-view body:

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The developer consistently suggests that the solution is to create a special CSS file and then link it to the FTB variable designModeCss, even though the Javascript suggests that designModeBodyTagCssClass or even designModeBodyStyle would be more appropriate.

Nowhere is it ever answered about how to change the dropdown lists for font and size to something other than the browser defaults. Every time, the same suggestion to use designModeCss is given.

Am I bellyaching? Maybe, but I see this same sort of pattern repeated whenever I use third-party products. I can’t remember the last time I saw adequate community-produced documentation. I guess it’s better than nothing, but that’s not saying much.

Sadly, there’s almost nothing available outside of about the product.

“If you are building local help files for your application, you’re wasting your time.”

Rubbish. The people who were frustrated with the Office help did try to use it – whacking F1 is as simple as it gets, after all – it’s just that the help system of recent Office editions sucks! That’s a specific problem with Office, not a general problem with local help files.

As far as I’m concerned: if your application has no local help file I’ll assume you’re a lazy bum who wants to offload documentation onto your users, and that means no sale from me.

I don’t know if I agree. I think if you would have picked Visual Studio, or Emacs, or the Windows command shell utilities (findstr, for, etc.) you would have found the online help is very good and often easier to use then searching the web.

Office is a ripe target because its help sucks. But to use it as an example to generalize across all software is a bit extreme.

The people who tend to read this blog are techy and comfortable googling for help. They are good at figuring out the right search terms and wading through the search hits and homing in on the relevant ones. But I’d guess we also tend to be looking for the kinds of information you won’t find in help files (like figuring out what registry keys Excel uses). And we also tend to just use the UI to figure things out rather than online help (like seeing what file formats you can save an Excel file as by looking at the File Save dialog).

But to say that writing a good help file is a waste of time is just wrong. That help file can be posted on the web as well as packaged with your app. Then it can serve your users whether they look for help in the app or online.

Your point about building a community is valid - but I’d say the way to go about it is setup a message board (like phpBB) and then make the commitment to answer questions to get the ball rolling. This doesn’t obviate writing a good help file.

As a counterexample, look at a href=""FreeTextBox/a. They’ve done everything you suggest: forum, wiki, etc. And it’s utter disaster. You’d think that FTB would inspire some community but the documentation is beyond piss-poor.

That’s a specific problem with Office, not a general problem with local help files

Really? For every app I use, I have found the “Google Help” to be far, far better than the built-in help. The only time I find integrated help useful is for ultra-specific “what does this radio button mean” type of questions.

Of course, the best solution of all is to make your app so intuitive and discoverable that nobody needs help in the first place.

You’d think that FTB would inspire some community but the documentation is beyond piss-poor

Interesting. Can you cite examples? The last time I used FTB, I found lots of online examples for anything I wanted to do. In contrast, we used a competing product on a MS project recently, and I really struggled with it because there’s virtually nothing available on it online.

QT3 represent.

Help in revent versions of Office sucks – let’s all agree on that. The best part about it is how the table of contents comes up in the side pane, and clicking on the items brings up a seperate window, which can then be hidden under the Word window. Great stuff.

I think the major problem is still the context switch. I don’t think non-expert users can deal with that. Have Word and IE open at the same time? Can you do that?

However, Visual Studio 2005, which I’ve only played with briefly, appears to be exactly what you’re talking about – the help system is online by default, has links to Microsoft forums, and all that.

Alan Cooper, and probably lots of others, have pointed out that applications and help systems should be targeted towards the “intermittent power user” because that is generally the largest category of users. Beginners might learn better with a super detailed help system and tutorials and experts do well with “keyword searches” but the fact remains that people quickly move out of “beginner mode” and are frustrated with too-helpful interfaces. And few people will spend enough time with an application to become an expert.

So this finding that help systems are generally most useful to beginners and expert users might explain why there is such a large community of “helpful intermittent power users” for most apps. The largest group of users has no use for the help system!

By the way, just before I read your post I wrote this on why MSDN help is the way it is: a href=""

The pitiful support for FTB is the reason why I took it out and started using FCKEditor. Of course, the damned programmers for that product don’t seem to know what a pop up blocker is, so the image gallery doesn’t work unless you enable popups for your site.

I even tried fixing it myself, but the code for the image gallery is so obtuse (whoever worked on that part didn’t have a clue about what they were doing) I’d have to rewrite it from scratch.

Beginners might learn better with a super detailed help system

How so? According to Jensen’s usability studies, beginners don’t use help in Office, eg, “Help is for experts”.

you would have found the online help is very good and often easier to use then searching the web.

Oh yes, MSDN help is truly wondrous…

9 times out of 10 the Google results are better. The MSDN page could be the top hit-- but it shouldn’t be unless it truly deserves the top position.

That’s online help vs. local help in a nutshell.

Beginners might learn better with a super detailed help system

How so? According to Jensen’s usability studies, beginners don’t use help in Office, eg, “Help is for experts”.

So what? That’s for Microsoft Office. It’s a case study for Microsoft Office, not a broad study of user interaction with help systems across software in general. Just because many help systems suck, that doesn’t mean that this study explains all our frustrations and ‘proves’ us right.

FWIW, most programs I use have extensive and useful help, and it’s rarely worth the time to check google for help and weed out all the irrelevant results. (Sometimes it is, but with good documentation, that’s the exception rather than the rule)

Visual Studio has excellent documentations in MSDN
considering I don’t have a internet connection at home I find
google useless there. Lispworks doc is also great.
The question is they you shouldn’t just write some reference , rather
put some tutorials in.
Products that come without documentation are just demo crup
even experts need to learn from somewhere, if you don’t make any docs development team is the only source, beside trial and error.


I often say “a very smart person will say ‘I don’t know’ and ask for help far more often than a very dumb person.” And I think it applies here as well: The “experts” read the manual and consult the help files far more often than the beginners!

I’ve encountered software packages with well designed and useful help functions (ex: Mathematica, Labview).

Many of the useless help menus I’ve encountered seem like they are written by a student to prove to his professor that he understands the key definitions and concepts.

They write ABOUT the software’s features instead of explaining how to actually use them.


That’s very nicely put - knowing the right “magic words” to ask…

Often finding the solution to a problem - in help or via search - requires knowing what’s wrong. One of the greatest GSCP (a href="" skills is the selection of keywords.

Even experts can’t know the answer to everything. They just need to know how to find the answer quickly.