The time your help desk staff spends answering the same basic end-user questions can create a real drag on manpower and economic resources for your IT department. But, if you are using the Microsoft Office suite, those little Office Assistant characters might be able to help you reduce the burden on your support system.

In the Office 2000 suite, Clippy and a whole cast of Office Assistant characters now boast a humorous appeal that can entice your end users to use them regularly. If you can help your end users to help themselves, you can save your support desk from answering a lot of routine, simple questions.

The cost savings can be significant. One major manufacturer estimates that half the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a workstation comes from supporting its user. Another study indicates that TCO can be reduced 17 percent if help features in the program suite are customized to fit the company’s needs.

In this article, you will learn how Office Assistants can be modified for your specific circumstances, and how you can redirect the Web-help feature to point to your in-house help page on your intranet.

We’ll also describe a few other features of the Office Assistants that can save your help desk staff even more time, significantly lowering your total cost of ownership for the Office suite product.

Functionality—and fun?
As the Office products have evolved over the years, Microsoft developers have worked to make the programs simpler to use, according to Lisa Gurry, product manager on the Microsoft Office team.

“The goal is to help our users find the information they need without having to call the help desk or search through a lot of menus or manuals,” Gurry said. “One of the ways we’ve been able to do that is through Office Assistant and other help features in Office.”

One of the appealing end-user features of the Office Assistant is the ability to type in a question in “natural language.” Unlike older products that would give you options that didn’t quite answer the question, the Answer Wizard technology understands the question well enough to give the user an appropriate answer.

“With the natural language technology that we’ve incorporated, it makes it really simple for users to type in the exact question that they want and get the answer that they need,” Gurry said.

The Office Assistants themselves have become so compelling that many users will want to keep them on their screens all day. One popular assistant is called Links the cat. There is something appealing about this fat, orange-colored feline. Curled up in the corner of the screen, Links breathes heavily as he sleeps, looking up and opening his eyes on occasion to see if his help is needed. There is more to this cat than meets the eye, however.

“A lot of people spend a lot of their day in their office, and they use Office, whether it is Outlook or Word, for the majority of work that they do,” Gurry said. “Not only is it nice to have an Office Assistant that is readily available to answer questions as you have them, and also provide tips on useful functionality, it also provides some humor and fun as the day goes on.”

Humor? In a subdued way, yes. For example, when you are spell checking an e-mail or document, Links whips out a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, a notepad, and pencil, and checks along with the spell checker.

Loading the answers in your favor
OK, now you have your end users using Clippy, or Links the cat, or Rocky the dog, or Einstein, or whichever Office Assistant appeals to them. Wouldn’t it be great if the Office Assistants gave your users answers that were specific to your organization?

What printer am I supposed to use? Where on the office intranet do I get the vacation request form?

“If an organization wanted to add questions and answers to the Answer Wizard that is behind the Office Assistant, they can easily do that,” Gurry said. “It’s an administrative tool within Office. Through a system policy editor, you can change the text that appears in the Office Assistant.”

If you already have an FAQ or help page on your company intranet, you can use that in the program also.

“There’s also a Help On The Web link within the Office Assistant that lets you access help on the Web,” she said.

Unaltered, the Help On The Web link takes the user to Microsoft’s Office Update Web site that has help and support information on it, but you can change that to point where you like, such as an intranet help site, she said.

The technical directions for adding new help questions and answers to the Office Assistant are beyond the scope of this article, but doing so basically involves using two Microsoft Office tools: the HTML Help Workshop and the Answer Wizard Builder.

A case study describing how Boeing Company modified the help files during its installation of the Office suite on its 200,000 desktops is located on Microsoft’s site. The 32-page report, written by Boeing’s Joel Ware IV, describes the company’s reasons for customizing the help files and the methodology they used in the process.

In that report, Boeing estimates that 50 percent of the costs of ownership related to desktop computers is in the hard-to-quantify costs associated with supporting users in the field, including lost productivity and direct costs of diagnosis and resolution.
Microsoft’s Lisa Gurry suggests reading some specific pages on their site to learn more about Office Assistants customization:

Gurry also suggests reading these studies:

Lowering the TCO
Reducing help desk support calls and saving costs are both strong arguments in favor of customizing help features and getting users to utilize devices such as the Office Assistants, Gurry said.

“I think organizations are recognizing that helping users use their software is very important,” she said. “You don’t have downtime, and the user[s] can help themselves and figure out the best and easiest way to work without having to call their help desk or support.”

Although the Boeing report doesn’t list the results of their customization, the Microsoft site features a TCO assessment from Stamford, CT-based analysts Gartner and IT service provider ICL for United Kingdom-based BG International. (TechRepublic is a subsidiary of Gartner.) In the BG International report, analysts estimated a 10 percent TCO reduction due to a 17 percent decrease in indirect costs as a result of upgrading to Office 2000. The study noted that customized help drove specific help desk requests to zero.

“Of all the new Office 2000 features, it was Custom Help that played a significant role in decreasing indirect end-user costs, indicating a direct measurable reduction in IT help desk support,” according to the Gartner study.
Are you feeding Links, the Office Assistant cat, answers that are specific to your operation? Is Office Assistant customization helping to reduce help desk support calls? Send us a note or start a discussion below.