Studies have shown that the "F1" key is the least commonly pressed key on today's keyboards!
Ok, well maybe not actual studies, but from my own experience, I am convinced that on many keyboards here around the world the F1 key still has that shiny "new key" look and smell because it's never been used. What does the F1 key do, you ask? Why have I never noticed it? Well, the F1 key in windows applications commonly opens up the Help pages in an application.
Now, I know what you're thinking: "'Help'? ... hmmm, that sounds familiar. Yeah, I think there's a menu up there called 'Help' also, but I've never used it." That is correct, F1 and the Help menu usually take you to the same place: an application's on-line documentation.
SQL Server has it, it's called Books On-Line. All of the MS Office applications have. Crystal Reports, Visual Studio, and pretty much any other slightly complicated professionally produced software application has it. Yet, the only people who ever use it tend to be the people who don't need to!
At my office and at my previous job, I quickly became the "go to" guy when it comes to helping with Microsoft Excel. Complicated formulas, pivot tables, lookups, conditional formatting, etc -- anything that people have trouble with or a question on, the word is out that Jeff can help them. And, I am extremely happy to. But I don't use Excel every day, and I often forget exactly what the arguments of a function are, or which of the many LOOKUP derivations to use, since when you use something infrequently, of course you forget the specifics. So, when I help others, it often goes like something this:
"I need your help on <feature>. I hear you are the expert. The problem is <vague description>."
"Ah, well, I haven't used <feature> before, so just go to the 'Help', type in <feature's name> and .. "
"Uh ... I'll let you drive ..."
"Well, I should really show you how to find this in the Help pages, they're very useful. Just click on..."
User: (not interested, getting up from their desk)
"The computer's all yours! Work your magic!"
Me: (relucantly sitting down at the computer)
"Hmmm... All right, well, here we go, there's the Help page for <feature> ... now let's bring it up, read it together, and see how it works."
User: (not really looking at the screen, starting to lose interest already ...)
Does it work yet?
: "Just a second, let's see here ... ah, it says here <exact quote from the help explaining the exact issue they are having> .. so all we need to do is <another quote from the help> ..."
: "Wow, I don't know how you know all this, you're an expert!"
: "Well, i am just reading the help file. I've never used this feature before. I just looked it up now. It's very clearly explained here. See?"
: (not really looking ... nods kind of absent-mindly ... thinks to himself: "that's a lot words on that screen, thank God I don't have to read all that")
: "Ok, so, according to the help, it tells us <what to do>. So, let's just do this..."
(two minutes pass ... the user is actually looking at what I am doing while in Excel, but if I tab back to the help screen, their eyes immediately 'glaze over' ...)
: "It works! Wow! You are a GENIUS! I do not know how you memorize and know all this stuff!"
"well, again, I just learned this two seconds ago, I knew less about this feature than you until I read the help file. Did you see what I did? I just went to Help and looked it up. Why don't I print out the help page for you?"
: (becomes apprehensive)
"Print all that stuff? Uh... , naw, um ... I'll just lose it, it's too much stuff, the printer is low on toner, ... why would I need all that? that's ok, no thanks."
: "Well, it's all right there, all the information you need to use this feature. It's very simple ... Well, anyway, did you see how I found the solution? Did you learn anything from this?"
: "I sure did! The next time I have any problems, I will call you! thank you so much!!!" (sits back down a computer, immediately closes annoying help window and goes back to worksheet)
I'm sure we've all seen this millions of times, and to be honest, I suppose lots of people like
being called the "expert" and enjoy it when the users are dependent on them for every little thing. But I don't. I really want them to learn to be self-sufficient, and I try over and over to explain help files and documentation to them, but why is it that some people just will simply not use them? I like the users, I like helping them, but I like it even more when they learn to help themselves. And I am not one of those "disgruntled IT guys" who will complain about those "idiot users" in these cases -- these people are very smart, very intelligent, hard-working and not lazy at all, very computer literate, and very capable of figuring this stuff out on their own ... but they rarely do.
There's other, more complicated applications that I don't even have installed on my machine that I am considered the "expert" for, and the script is always the same. I've printed out help pages, highlighted important things, and handed them out to users, but they get lost or misplaced or simply thrown away ... is it really easier to call me, wait for me to come down, explain the issue to me, wait for me to read the help, and then wait for me to explain it to them, rather than just read the answer that available is right in front of you?
We see this all the time on programming forums:
"Hi! What does the second argument in <functioname> do? Please help, it is URGENT!!!" .
I never understand why it is easier to log into a forum (sometimes creating a new account), start a new thread, post a question, and wait for responses, rather than simply looking at a help screen or simply using Google to find the results. It cannot be laziness, because it is considerably more work to use the forums .. so what is it? What do we call this?
Are today's help systems hard to read or navigate? Maybe that's the issue? It's not the content of the Help -- slam "M$" all you want, but Office is a great product and the help files are excellent. There's lots of information available on-line as well, often as an official and well-written Microsoft Knowledge Base article.
I often say "a very smart person will say 'I don't know' and ask for help far more often than a very dumb person." And I think it applies here as well: The "experts" read the manual and consult the help files far more often than the beginners!
I apologize if this is coming off as a rant, it is really not intended to, but I am just curious to hear other points of view or opinions about this, both from the "experts" like myself and the users who rely on them.