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Bil Lewis

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Why Isn't Help Helpful?

July 13, 2010

Why Isn't Help Helpful?

How many times have you used a help system, only to find that it couldn't answer your question?

Back in the early 80's, Bob Wilensky of Yale infamy* was working on this problem. I didn't care for him, but he was a very clever fellow. Outside of a few rather simplistic observations, he got nowhere. Nor did I.

My conclusion based on both my own work and his, was that the biggest problem was that people didn't know quite what they wanted. They wanted a program to "do this", where "this" was kinda vague.

Not surprisingly, it's really hard for a keyword search system to make much sense of "I want to make a list of all the people in the district who won three awards."

The user pretty much has to have some idea of what a spreadsheet is and how queries can be written against one.

Even when we do know exactly what we're after, many systems fail because they use specialized language or simply fail to index on all relevant terms. I typed "Draft" into MS Word's Help System, hoping to find an entry that would explain how I can have "Draft" written across my proposal, so no one would mistake it for the final version.

Does its lack of relevant entries indicate that Word simply can't do that? Or did they simply use some other term?

Since 1965, every mouse-based text editor I knew of used a double-click to select a single word. (Triple-click was usually the whole line, and 4 clicks selected the entire document.) So I was very surprised that Word didn't follow this convention. "Perhaps it's supposed to select a word, and MS Word on a Mac is simply buggy," I thought to myself.

Help didn't help.

Of course, it's not to an ISV's advantage to advertise things their product doesn't do. So we find a rather unplesant situation where ISVs are motivated to make their help system difficult to use.

I do not expect the human advisor to disappear any time soon.

-Bil ====

* Or fame--depends on your point of view. Yale's AI group was always lined up in opposition to the rest of the world. Whatever we did at Stanford, they would mock and assure the world that their approach (involving Mopsy, Flopsy, and Cottontail) to the problem would be vastly superior as soon as it all worked. There were some nasty feuds.

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