Appreciating the potential of Windows Vista's new Help system

Here is a look at Windows Vista's new Help system--and at Windows Help systems of the past--to give you some perspective on how far things have come.

Like many of you, I've been using the Windows operating system for a very, very long time. As proof, I offer the fact that I still have a copy of the 1985 release of Microsoft Windows 1.0 on a stack of ten 5 1/4 disks in the back of my closet. (If you want to see a set of these disks, check out the pictures from the DigiBarn Computer Museum. Now, I'm working with a beta copy of Windows Vista that came of a single DVD.

In any case, as I've watched the Windows operating system evolve over the years, I've always been impressed with the plethora of new and impressive features that Microsoft has endowed on each successive iteration. And, even though the real thunder is elsewhere in each new version of the operating system, I've always been interested in investigating the improvements that Microsoft has made to the Windows Help system.

Now, as you can imagine, at this early stage of the Windows Vista beta program, the Help system is not yet fully functional and probably not even visually representative of what the final version will look like. In fact, a lot of it is skeletal in nature and consists of placeholders that simply read:

[This documentation is preliminary and subject to change]

Type optional introductory text here

1. Type step 1 here.

2. Type step 2 here.

Even so, there is already some very useful information in the Windows Vista Help system as it stands at this stage. Furthermore, I've discovered what I think is an awesome Help system tool that offers a glimpse of the potential that Windows Vista's new powerful GUI can bring to the Help system.

However, before I begin discussing the potential features in the Windows Vista Help system, I want to give you a little background on the evolution of the Windows Help system and some insight on my keen interest in this aspect of the operating system.

A helpful Help system?

If you guffaw at the mere mention of the Windows Help system, I must admit that as a Help system advocate, I've encountered that reaction many times over the years. Unfortunately, the Windows Help system picked up a very bad reputation back in the Windows 3.x days due to its poor design, inadequate explanations, and ambiguous and confusing functions. The Windows Help system's bad reputation is so widespread that many folks simply disregard it altogether and have done so for such a long time that they have forgotten that the Windows Help system even exists.

This is unfortunate because as a Windows Help system connoisseur, if you will, I know that Microsoft has been diligent in its efforts to improve upon the Help system with each successive version of the operating system. To see this, let's take a moment to look at an overview of the highpoints in the evolution of the Windows Help system.

If we were to look back in time to 1995 and compare the Help system in Windows 95 to the one in Windows 3.x, you'd see that Microsoft invested a lot of time and effort into usability testing and completely retooled the Help system to make it easier to use and easer to learn. In fact, the Windows 95 version of the Help system actually looked more like a reference book, complete with a table of contents and an index. Other new features in this version included shortcut buttons, Tips and Tricks sections, and the What's This? button, which changed the pointer into a question mark and made getting context sensitive help as easy as point and click. While the Windows 95 Help system wasn't the greatest, it definitely was an improvement.

When Windows 98 came out three years later, the Help system was again reworked, this time using Microsoft's new HTML Help engine. By converting the Help system to HTML, Microsoft was able to make it more like a familiar Web browser and allowed the Help system to extend its reach, via the Web Help button on the toolbar, beyond the locally available files to the Internet where more current content and other types of assistance programs could be found. Other browser-like features found in the new HTML interface included the Back and Forward buttons that allowed you to more easily navigate. The Windows 98 Help system also introduced the Troubleshooting Wizards, which parlayed the power of ActiveX scripting in HTML to create seemingly intelligent applications that would walk you through a set of questions in an effort to guide you to a possible solution based on the answers you chose along the way.

In Windows 2000, the advantages of the HTML Help engine really began to take shape with the introduction of such features as the Favorites tab, so you could save a topic for later reference, and a vastly improved Search engine that took advantage of HTML tags and allowed the use of Boolean operators to allow you to more easily narrow down your search to the topic you were seeking. Both of these new tools came in handy, because the Windows 2000 Help system had the most extensively detailed content base of any the Help systems that came before it.

While Windows ME was basically a flop, the Help system included in this operating system was grand. Renamed the Help and Support Center, this new Help system was basically a small Web site complete with a Home page that included a nicely organized menu bar, a built-in search box, and a set of links that took you deeper into the Help system as well as out to the Internet. One of the items that sounded promising, but actually fell short, was the Tours and Tutorials section, which featured a set of storybook-like guided tours that unfortunately focused solely on novice material.

The current version of the Help and Support Center in Windows XP is really a top notch resource that is also laid out like a small Web site. The Home page interface sports an intuitive button bar and is literally is packed with useful information presented in both easy to read step-by-step instructions as well as in more detailed how-to articles (rumor has it that the this Help system consists of almost 10,000 topics in 200 plus files). The Help and Support Center features a task-based organizational format that includes both a Favorites and History features, as well as an extremely comprehensive search tool that can reach out beyond the Help system itself and cull related information from the Microsoft Knowledge Base Web site. Other innovative features include Remote Assistance for seeking and providing long distance hands-on support, several step-by-step guided tours called Walkthroughs that cover common tasks, and two full screen multimedia tutorials that also cover common tasks.

As you can see, Microsoft really has done a lot to improve the Windows Help system in each successive operating system over the years. So what does the Windows Vista Help system have in store for us?

The Windows Vista Help system

As I mentioned earlier, the Windows Vista Help system in the beta is not yet fully functional and probably not even visually representative of what the final version will look like. As such, it will inevitably grow in size and stature as the operating system goes through its development process between now and late 2006 when we're hoping to see the final release. However, based on what we've seen so far in the evolution of the Windows Help system, Windows Vista is sure to have a remarkable set of features in its Help system.

One such feature that I encountered in the beta version of the Windows Vista Help system is tentatively called Guided Help. This interactive tutorial tool looks and feels very much like those that you find in the online MCSE training curriculum. However, the interesting aspect here is that instead of presenting a simulated mockup of the operating system UI, the Guided Help tutorials run in the actual UI. As such, while you're learning how to perform the task, you're actually doing it. This is just like having someone standing over your shoulder and showing you what to do, i.e., Guided Help!

In this particular beta version, I only discovered two Guided Help tools—one that shows you what's new in the Documents folder and one that shows you how to change the program that opens a type of file (i.e., alter the file type association). While the former is more of an informational tutorial, the latter allows you to actually change the file type association as you're working through the tutorial.

The opening screen in the Guided Help tool for changing the program that opens a type of file, allows you to interactively participate, by selecting the Show me where to click option, or to sit back and watch, by selecting the Do it for me option.

Going with the Show me where to click option and clicking the Begin button, sets the Guided Help dialog box in motion and it hovers across the screen. Once it arrives at the destination, the arrow in the compass graphic points to where you are to click.

The fact that Microsoft included a Guided Help tool in the beta that actually shows how to perform a common task, leads me to believe that Windows Vista's Help system will contain a lot more Guided Help tools that will show us how to perform a wide range of tasks—both simple and complex.


My hope in highlighting the Windows Vista Help system and leading you through this history lesson, is that you will gain a better appreciation of the Windows Help system in general and that you'll keep this feature in mind as one of your focus points as you begin to explore the Windows Vista operating system. An ulterior motive here is that you'll impart this appreciation on the users that you support thereby giving them more confidence in the fact that they can find the answers to their questions themselves if they take advantage of the new Help system in Windows Vista.

Now, as I close this issue, it's important to keep in mind that you have to take this information with a grain of salt at this point in time, considering the fact that Windows Vista's release date is over a year a way and the operating system is still in a state of flux

As always, if you have comments or information to share about Windows Vista's new Help system, please take a moment to drop by the Discussion area and let us hear.

About Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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