Monday, August 11, 2008

Users don't want help

This may be one of those obvious, everyone already knows it, stop repeating it like you're the first person to think of it, topics. But it's still true. And it's still important to remember.

Users don't want help.

This blanket statement applies to both types of users: software and drugs. I'm going to focus on the software type.

Think of three programs you use frequently. Lets pretend you're thinking: Internet Explorer, Microsoft Outlook, and Microsoft Office (you're clearly very into Microsoft software arn't you?). Have you ever in the entire time you've been using those used the help system?

If you're like me, the answer is no. While writing this I realized I didn't even know if Internet Explorer HAD help (I checked, it does).

Now have you ever had a problem in any of those programs? Of course you have. But you didn't go to the help. Why not?

Some people will answer by saying that the help is useless. Mostly this is true. But I know there was a time when that wasn't true. For example, I've been told that the help in the old DOS Word Perfect was fantastic. I think this is a chicken and the egg problem. What came first, bad help, or people not reading the help?

My guess is that software vendors actually realized no one was reading the help and so started putting less effort into it. Then people in desperate situations tried using the help and discovered it wasn't very good, so they stopped referring to it even in the most dire circumstances. The vendors still have to provide some kind of help of course. It's expected of them. But they certainly don't have to waste their time making it good!

It all comes back to the fact that users don't want help. When I'm trying to do something, I don't want help doing it. I just want to be able to figure out how do it. Right there. On the spot. And if I fail at that, I want someone else to do it for me. (That's why Linux forums are always full of "RTFM!")

If you can't give people help to get them to understand your application, how do you do it? In Steve Krug's awesome book, "Don't Make Me Think" he has this advice: If you can't make it self evident, make it self describing.

It's much harder than it sounds. But it's also more important than it seems. After all, if your users can't figure it out and they're not going to ask for help, they have only one option left: To make like a tree and get the heck out of there. I mean, leave.


  1. You are absolutely correct in saying that the majority of users don't use the integrated help systems in software. There's probably a surprising number of people that don't even realize there's integrated help in applications.

    Part of the problem probably lies in the fact that there are so many quick-fix resources available these days: a geek friend/relative/etc, search engines, you name it.

    I wonder if we'll ever start to see the "Help" menu provide links to search engines with popular queries related to the software. This is user maintained help that is free to the company. But you make a great point that most companies are "obligated" to provide a help system, and might not be able to get away with such a solution.

    An interesting problem...

  2. Toby you raise an interesting point. A story from this morning:

    Im using VMWare fusion 2.0 beta 2 at work because i need a feature it offers. Just this morning i found myself needing "help" specifically i was noticing that sometimes the ctrl and alt keys wouldnt seem to work when you hold them.

    I didnt go to the help menu i went to and searched for the problem.

    A lot of help systems now redirect you to a website which is both good and bad (sucks if the problem your having is you cant connect to the internet) but it does have one advantage. Its a living document and if you harness bug reports and FAQs from the community you end up having a halfway helpful documentation repository.

  3. SQL Server Books Online (which is usually installed locally) is also an awesome help source. Almost every DBA I've ever met uses it frequently.

    ...but again, it is an exception instead of the rule to find good help.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.