Ok, so I'm a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to help files. I still like the WinHelp format. Short, sharp, FAST, and to the point. No pretentious fancy links and skins – just documented help.
I remember the days when you could actually find help quickly, because it used to be on your PC and not way out there in the ether. All you had to do was click on the question mark in the toolbar [?] and point to an item – and nine times out of ten, you found the answer or information that you needed.
My recent experience with the help feature in Microsoft Office 2007 wasn't as successful. I needed to create a distribution list, but I couldn't remember how. Hmmm… menu click, menu click, menu click… Since that didn't work, I decided to look it up in the help file by clicking Help | Microsoft Office Outlook Help.
The Help dialog box is already emblazoned with numerous help topics. I tried the two most logical choices: "E-mail accounts and profiles" and "Contacts." That was pointless. Next, I entered "distribution list" in the text box and clicked Search. When it returned 100 entries, I thought, "Wow! There must be a lot of help on distribution list!"
However, when I examined the first 25 help items, not one of the entries made any reference to distribution. What I did see was information about lists, such as "Manage the Product and Service Items List in Business Contact Manager." Sure, that little snippet of information might come in handy some day, but it wasn't quite what I was looking for.
I tried the next 25 items, confident that help wasn't that far away. And then I navigated through the remainder of the search results… still no luck.
Maybe if I just searched for "distribution," I would find the information I needed – and I was hopeful when it returned only 35 help entries. Nope. One of the "distribution" help entries was "Introduction to RSS." Well, it did have a single use of the word "distribution," so I guess it qualified.
So, what does Microsoft call its Outlook distribution lists? You would think that, if they are indeed called "distribution lists," any reference to such lists would need to use the word "distribution" and therefore, just like the inclusion of the word in the RSS topic, it should appear in the help entries when you search for "distribution."
As my last resort – which probably should have been my first choice – I used Google. I entered "outlook distribution list," and every single one of the first 10 hits had "outlook distribution list" in the URL. Coincidentally, the second and third search hits were located on the office.microsoft.com/en-us Web site. However, I also found the answer I needed in the first search hit at About.com.
I don't doubt that HTML/chm help files, properly created, have their place, but for simple online readable help information, WinHelp was (and is) hard to beat. Microsoft Outlook 2007's Help feature, which produced a vast array of unrelated and unnecessary topics that I had to manually wade through, is the most unhelpful help I've found to date.
What is your experience with application help information? Do you think that application help is less helpful than it used to be? Is the Internet your first choice for finding answers to application and program use?
Sonja Thompson started at TechRepublic in October 1999. She is a former Senior Editor at TechRepublic.