I’m no software designer or usability expert, but I use computers almost every day for work as well as general life management. It also just so happens that I spend most of my working life writing about computing - which probably explains why I’m writing about help menus.
When it comes to new applications, we usually hear about the new features, shortcuts and redesigned interfaces. Help menus don't get a lot of attention, but they can have a real impact on how easily you can get your work done in a program. They’re vital, and not just if you’re new to using a particular program.
Help menus do a good job of listing the various topics, with simple explanations and they’re easily searchable from within the program. That’s the good news. What’s wrong is that they’re not intuitive. The user must do most of the work, as they try to ask the right question to get the answer they’re looking for, and figure out how to interpret the help steps for their particular problem.
If I have a problem, it usually doesn’t exist in isolation. This is one of the main failings of help menus. Most that I use don’t have the capacity to work out at what point in my task I'm having a problem, or to use the information in two or more help menus to provide more complex guidance if I'm stuck.
I’d love to see a help function that can handle more complex searches, has contextual help so that you can describe what it is you want to do rather than have to know the answer, and has the ability to diagnose that you’re trying to do and give you the steps to do it.
Computing has become more sophisticated and we’ve come to rely on it for so many of our everyday tasks, but the innovation you see in phones and tablets - such as fingerprint recognition, processing smarts like Siri or Google Now and integration between apps and devices - hasn’t been matched by advances in help menus.
We’re seeing both Apple and Google push ahead with intuitive features such as calculating travel times for our events, alerting us to upcoming diary entries and anticipating searches, but nothing like this has been applied to navigating or learning applications.
I think revolutionising help menus would be a game changer - it could attract users back to desktops, and maybe even help make them into loyal, lifelong users for Apple, Microsoft or Google. Maybe, just maybe, they could offer a solution before I even get to the help menu by telling me what to do next to carry out a certain task? That’s not too much to ask now, is it?