Jeff Smith Blog

Random Thoughts & Cartesian Products with Microsoft SQL Server

Why do only the "Experts" use online help?

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:

User: "I need your help on <feature>.  I hear you are the expert.  The problem is <vague description>."

Me:  "Ah, well, I haven't used <feature> before, so just go to the 'Help', type in <feature's name> and .. "

User: "Uh …  I'll let you drive …"

Me: "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?

Me: "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> …"

User: "Wow, I don't know how you know all this, you're an expert!"

Me: "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?"

User: (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")

Me: "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' …)


User: "It works!  Wow! You are a GENIUS!  I do not know how you memorize and know all this stuff!"

Me: "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?"

User: (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."

Me: "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?"

User: "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.  

Legacy Comments

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
I wonde rif it is something more social than technical. They want to feel that a real live person cares about their problem, sometimes (often) more than actually getting said problem solved. What was it I read somewhere many many years ago - 80% of customer satisfaction with a software application comes from how helpful and nice people feel the support is and only 20% from how well it actually works? Techie-types like me often don't get this.

Happens in other fields too. Actually, I really only caught onto it in a personal context, and it had to be spelled out to me at that.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
Great point, I totally agree, I think the social aspect is definitely a key factor in this, much more so than the content of the help itself or how you access it from a technical standpoint. Well said, and thanks for the comments.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
Good point Jeff, I heard that 'wheres the resident Excel expert today' so much its sickening. I swear I don't know excel as much as the people asking the question, but simple things such as how formulas are done are asked almost every day.
You are right on regarding the F1 key, it is pretty dusty just waiting to be pushed, and no one ever does, except as you mentioned those who don't need it.

The more you tell them the more they are not interested in learning, it really has to do with what interests them in life. Can you imagine sitting here all day and being told to read a book by J.K Rowling if you had no interest in Harry Potter. I think these people think reading something that may seem boring and not worthwhile is just not worth it. Why should I read it when I can have someone else read it for me. Besides its a lot easier to have MY stuff done for me, heaven forbid I lose precious time on MY real work.

If you think about it, kp is right, this happens in other fields too. Think about finance or accounting for that matter. There are literally millions of investors, but only few you can name specifically because of their wealth, Warren Buffet, Peter Lynch, etc. But how many no namers are out there, millions upon millions. They don't do the researching, they dont care about the busy work, what they want is results. If I can just get a tip from Warren Buffet I can be rich! I can be rich without doing any busy work, they've done all of the work for me; they ready the help files, I dont need to read em.

Jason Kohlhoff
re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
I don't know how many times a similar thing has happened to me, but it has happened a lot. I usually do have pretty good luck actually teaching people though. I usually start out by saying "I will show you how to..." and then end with "You can look this up and figure this out here..." It takes patience, but most people usually come around.

I also agree about the 80/20 rule of customer satisfaction. In my experience, especially with the most computer illiterate, people really like a support person that's patient. Most people are happy to deal with something that's broken if they feel like you're there to support them.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
I think another part of it has to do with this:

If you're in the middle of doing something and you hit a snag, you have to switch gears to solve the problem. For a lot of people this is quite painful, it's largely what makes reading documentation "not worth it" and why they'd much rather have someone else solve their problem. Sure, it takes less "real effort" to press F1 and read a help topic, but if you're in The Zone you'd rather eat glass than step just one foot out of that happy productivity place to read, of all things, documentation. To them, it's just better if they can get someone else to switch gears so they can stay in that zone for as long as they can.

And really, I can't blame people for that. I get that way sometimes, myself, and I write documentation for a living. And as I'm sure you know, getting back into The Zone after you've taken even a couple minutes away from it leaves you feeling lots of unhappy things -- anything from "crap, now what was I doing again?" to "Oh God, I have to finish this thing NOW before I'm interrupted AGAIN because I'll NEVER have another chance before the Sun goes supernova and the world ends and dogs and cats start living together....!" and on and on and on.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
I think it's quite different from what the article suggests, at least in my case.

For Microsoft in particular, the Help functions/menus/pages are so poorly written that it is an utter waste of my time to even begin there for a particular snag.

For example, I'm confronted with a user that I support who is using MS Access as a DB tool. I need to solve a particular problem for one of his queries, and I'd like to use a case expression. However, my case expression isn't working. I go to the help menu and type: Case expression

The very first item is the following article:

"I get the message "The expression is not valid."
Show All
Hide All
You attempted to type an expression (expression: Any combination of mathematical or logical operators, constants, functions, and names of fields, controls, and properties that evaluates to a single value. Expressions can perform calculations, manipulate characters, or test data.) that includes the name of a field that is not in the data definition (data definition: The fields in underlying tables and queries, and the expressions, that make up the record source for a data access page.) of the page. Any field that you reference in an expression on a data access page must be in that page's data definition. To add a field to the page's data definition, drag the field from the field list (field list: A window that lists all the fields in the underlying record source or database object, except in data access page Design view. In data access page Design view, it lists all the record sources and their fields in the underlying database.) to the data access page. If you don't want to show the values (value: The text, date, number, or logical input that completes a condition that a field must meet for searching or filtering. For example, the field Author with the condition equals must include a value, such as John, to be complete.) in the field on the page, you can hide or delete the control bound to the field. However, even if you delete the control, a field referenced in an expression remains part of the page's data definition.

So now Microsoft wants to buy Yahoo? With that kind of search logic, LOL @ THAT!!!!!!!

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
horrible example. CASE is a specific function or keyword that may or may not exist in MS Access. If you search for "conditional expressions", i.e., if you put some thought into it and actual search for the concept you need help with using relevant words, not just some random keywords that you hope will match something, you get tons of results, the very first being an example using IIF(), which is exactly what you would be looking for.

No offense, but your example is a typical "why I don't use help! It sucks!" excuse; people try to search for or find one exact phrase, and if the *very first* result doesn't completely answer their question, they completely give up and blame the help documents. they demand exact, cut and paste answers with as little effort as possible, expecting that the help feature will "read their mind" and figure out exactly what they are looking for.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
I find the on-line help in Office 2003 frustrating - never really been able to find anything in it (and why the hell does it need to download stuff from the internet?). I never had any problems looking up information in the Office 2000 help, but with 2003, I got in the habit to just google - I'll usually have the results much faster than using the built-in help.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
Office 2003 help sucks unbelievably.
I always used the "online" help of earlier versions. I can't find anything in this POS.
Just now, I tried to find how to make a dropdown list in Excel and typed "dropdown" into the search field.
Of course, none of the results was anywhere close to "How to create a dropdown list".
Why did they have to break it?
This thing has obviously been designed by a bunch of idi ots.

re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
My family is very good at exploiting me when they need computer problems solved. While I started using computers decades ago, all of my brothers and sisters only recently bought their first computers in the past few years. I can't tell you how many times I've gotten phone calls at all hours of the day and night with simple problems that could have easily been solved by just reading the help file or manual. But I always put on a smile and continue to help them out, and they are usually very greatful.

What started to annoy me, however, is when they would need me to back up all of their personal files, reinstall their operating system and applications, restore all their files, etc. and it would take me a good part of a day to do this, while they went out and did other things because they weren't interested in "watching" what I did. Did they think I enjoyed sitting there all day, swapping discs and clicking "next" a hundred times? Yes, they thought this. They thought I was in heaven if I could sit at a computer all day long, doing whatever computer people do, so they thought they were doing me a favor when I would have to solve their computer problems. Once I tried to show my sister how to do something herself, but she told me that she wasn't interested in knowing "how" because she would just forget it anyway, and she added, "it's different for you, you like this sort of thing". Yes- I do enjoy using a computer for making my life easier, or doing research, or making purchases, etc. But she, and most other people, generalize that using a computer doesn't matter what you are doing on it... but yes, it does matter. Needless to say, I told her that what she wanted me to do wasn't pleasant, or a good use of my time, and I made her feel bad, because she thought she was making me happy by giving me mundane things to do on a compter. I ended up apologizing and doing everything anyway, but she doesn't call me much anymore for help... which is Ok by me.

Tom Ritchford
re: Why do only the "Experts" use online help?
I see this problem all the time. It's part of the reason I tell people I know that I don't know how PCs work (which is somewhat true, I'm a Mac person).

This is the spirit of the age in America. Look at No Child Left Behind; this means, "teaching our kids to memorize a canned 'right answer' and then regurgitate it on command." That's what the schools teach, that's what the government claims it wants, why are you surprised when people actually act as the government has ordered? The kids today know: "Piss off the government, you end up in a camp, and you'll never emerge alive.

Look at the dialog you've posted! Note that the person you're talking to doesn't understand that you use "logic" starting from "data" to deduce "results"; they want an answer they can memorize because that's what they've been taught to do.

You (you in general; not the writer of this blog) keep voting for these anti-education, pro-aggression politicians, and then you wonder why your kids disdain logic and just want to wander around imaginary universes and kill things. How tempting it is to wash our hands of you altogether.