Government // Mobile & Wireless
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Larry Seltzer
Larry Seltzer
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Where Did Help Go? Today's Software Assistance Is Lame

Software companies used to put a lot of money and effort into help systems. Now it's been thrown in the trash. Need help? What we're left with is Google and Siri.

There was a time, not too long ago, when software companies put a lot of effort into help facilities for their programs. Not sure what to do next? Press F1 and a window would appear with helpful context-sensitive assistance.

Seems like one for the history books now. Help is one of those things that the industry--both vendors and users I suppose--have decided are superfluous. We want more features faster, not explanations on how to use them. If you can't figure out how to use something on your own perhaps it's not worth using.

Nowadays, if you need to figure out something about a program you're using you don't use help, you Google it. This can work out well or badly. It's rare to get an "official" answer from the vendor this way, but there are countless discussion sites, some of them on the vendor sites, where answers can be found.

Helpful answers? Maybe, maybe not. You can usually ask your own questions, too, but if you're like me you'll keep looking instead and try to find the answer you need right now. And it's easy to get sidetracked into bad advice through Google.

Can I get some help here?
This happened to me recently with iMovie on my Mac. iMovie is pretty intuitive and it does have help, but it's pretty lame help. Half the responses to my search merely pointed to menu items with no explanation. The other responses were just plain irrelevant. This, to me, has the stink of Apple not wanting to put any effort into it. Googling my problem--which had to do with exporting to various formats--only served to waste a half hour of my time.

Go mobile and help nearly disappears altogether. One of the exceptions is the Facebook app, which has a full-blown Help Center, although it's not easy to find and it's not context-sensitive.

Inherent to the mobile part of the problem is the bias against "cluttering up" the interface, and help would be seen as clutter if it were always available. There's another, more general problem: Lots of people never touch help systems at all. Now we all have to be like them.

Is helpless software a good or bad thing? To the extent that we're all online all the time, the help itself might as well be online and kept up-to-date. But that's not a reason to make us leave an app and open up a browser. The loss of help inside apps is a loss for usability.

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