The 10.6 Report: What About the Help System?

April 22nd, 2008

Back in the heady days of the Classic Mac OS, Apple had one lame-brained idea after another. Let’s not forget such schemes as QuickDraw GX, for example, which held out a lot of promise on paper but never realized its potential. But that was only one example of Apple’s failed technologies during the 1990s.

Perhaps the most blatant example of good ideas gone bad was the infamous Balloon Help. When activated, you simply point your mouse to, for example, a menu bar label, and it would deliver a comic book style pithy paragraph describing its function. Unfortunately, this irritant also slowed down the system something fierce, and most of you, I’m sure, simply turned it off.

Eventually, Apple took the hint and sent Balloon Help on to its appropriate fate as another failed innovation.

Today’s Help menu, aside from showing smaller text than the rest of the menu bar commands for some unaccountable reason, is largely uninspired. It’s simply a collection of Web pages that guide you to both local and online resources, and I suppose it’s adequate. Of course, it’s usefulness also depends on the extent to which an application developer will write instructional text.

Some programs, such as Peak Pro, the audio application we use for post production on the radio shows, confine most of their help text to a PDF version of the user manual. On a practical level, it’s probably no worse than the standard Leopard help system.

But isn’t there a better way?

For a while now, I’ve made a pitch for active assistance. Even though Macs are reasonably easy to use as personal computers go, you can’t call them simple. Most people who learn how to work on their Macs didn’t acquire the knowledge by reading a “Dummies” book or something similar. Instead, someone, perhaps a family member, a friend, or a coworker, shows them the basics, and they were on their own.

In my own case, I was an inveterate manual reader. When I bought my first Mac over two decades ago, for example, I read every single page of the thick books that came in the shipping carton — twice in fact. That and a few books covering tips and tricks and troubleshooting techniques sent me on my way. But that was then and this is now. Frankly, I’m not as inclined to pore through thick user guides in this day and age, although I will browse through the essentials when I need to master a specific program feature.

Regardless of your learning techniques, there’s always something more to know. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t discover some tidbit of knowledge about which I was unaware. This is the quest that never ends, and I hope you feel the same about your various pursuits.

So what do I mean by active assistance? Well, we each, in our own ways, require different amounts of information to master a task. It’s also true that you can probably be placed in a specific category of perceived expertise, such as beginner, regular user, and power user. And, no, I don’t object to a broader definition of skill levels. This is just a general suggestion.

Now here’s how my vision of a help system would operate. When you first install 10.6 or a new Mac that contains that system, you’ll have to answer a few brief questions in the Setup Assistant. That, plus the way you use your Mac, will guide its fuzzy logic to determine your skill level.

As you progress through your various tasks, there will be an occasional help screen advising you of a better way to accomplish that chore. Say you are in the habit of double-clicking on a document even when the application that created that file is open. So you’d be shown the Open dialog box as a quicker alternative.

In fact, this is a prime example. I have run into lots of long-time Mac users for whom an Open dialog is an unknown, an unfathomable mystery. When I am helping them to troubleshoot something on the phone, I’ll tell them to choose Open from the File menu and they’ll say “What’s that?”

This doesn’t mean that the person who lacks what some of you regard as a fundamental Mac skill is necessarily stupid. To some positively brilliant people, technology is not a friend but an annoyance that is only used out of necessity. I won’t get into the left-brain and right-brain thing, as it doesn’t matter. Here’s where active assistance could work its magic to empower people who are intimidated by such matters.

Of course, the most important thing about any feature of this sort is the ability to turn it off. Maybe you don’t want anyone to tell you there’s a better way to accomplish something. Maybe you’re doing some heavy-duty content creation that stretches your Mac’s processing power, and  you don’t want anything to get in the way. In the former situation, you could turn off the guidance, and restore it with a keystroke or checkbox in a preference pane. For the latter, it would turn itself off automatically when system resources are being taxed by other functions.

Understand that this is just a fairly basic concept, one that can be fleshed out in many ways.

So, dear reader, do you like Leopard’s Help system? Or do you have some ideas on how it can be improved?

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17 Responses to “The 10.6 Report: What About the Help System?”

  1. Tim Buchheim says:

    I thought Tiger’s Help Viewer was fine. The content could have used some work (it was rather sparse) but the application itself worked fine. The Leopard version is broken in comparison. Making it not have a menubar is somewhat annoying, but I understand that they were trying to make it seem more integrated, rather than a separate app. (although this technique doesn’t really work, and I find it annoying.) Much worse is the way it insists on staying on top of all other windows. Most of the time it is covering up the app you’re trying to use, and you end up constantly moving/resizing windows when trying to follow the steps listed in a help topic.

    The help menu has some interesting ideas. The built-in search field saves some steps and is somewhat useful. The tiny text is odd, though. (it would be fine if it were used only for search results, where there might be a lot of entries, but why also make normal menu items so small?) The searching the menubar thing is a bit of a gimmick, but it can be useful in Office apps which have such poorly organized menus.

    Do you remember Apple Guide? I thought it was a very good help system, back when it appeared in System 7 (or perhaps 7.5 … I don’t remember exactly when it showed up.) When an application supplied well-authored Apple Guide content it was great. Who could fail to understand a red circle being drawn around a button or text field?

    The problem with Apple Guide was that it was very difficult to write content for it. That’s why Apple switched to HTML around Mac OS 8. Apple Guide only worked well when developers put a lot of effort into the help content, which most were not willing to do. (Even Apple failed to provide good Apple Guide content for many applications.) I think Apple Guide could be done a lot more easily today.

  2. Ah yes, Apple Guide. Whatever is old is new again, assuming Apple is willing to resurrect this idea in a proper 21st century fashion. Maybe we’ll see it when the configurable Apple menu returns. 😀


  3. Odysseus says:

    The funny thing is that you don’t mention the biggest drawback to the Help system, one that Apple has steadfastly failed to improve: speed. It takes upward of 7-10 seconds to get search results to appear, and actually displaying a page is agonizingly slow.

  4. Thib. says:

    I use Macs exclusively but have had chance to use Windows XP every now and then. I must say, I enjoy Windows XP’s help system a lot more than Apple’s. It’s usually much more detailed and things are easier to find. And, it’s very fast in its search. Apple’s help system in Leopard is very slow.

  5. I use Macs exclusively but have had chance to use Windows XP every now and then. I must say, I enjoy Windows XP’s help system a lot more than Apple’s. It’s usually much more detailed and things are easier to find. And, it’s very fast in its search. Apple’s help system in Leopard is very slow.

    I have to tell you that I’m not seeing Leopard’s Help system as extremely slow. On both my Mac Pro and MacBook Pro, it comes up in a second or two. Understand that it also depends on online content, and maybe the symptoms some of you report relate to Internet access as well.


  6. Kenh says:

    I have to agree about Windows XP help, and much as I hate to say it, Microsoft Office help. Good links to submenus that have the effect of creating a workpath that actually allows you to do things that you could not do before.

    You can certainly make the argument that if Office was not so complex, it would not be necessary, but the fact is those help items are there.

    I tend not to go to Mac app help files because merely saying that something can be done does not show you how to do it, and I see that too often. It is often easier just to experiment your way out of the problem than to spend the time looking at help menus that just tell you that you can do something. I think they are getting better, but the pace of improvement is slow.

    Sort of like the woman who believes that because she is vaguely mysterious and beautiful, she is also intelligent and sophisticated. No, it could just mean that she is just vague, to the point that she can’t remember where she parked her car.

    Don’t get me wrong, Mac user since 1988 and would never change, but Mac help menus are not as good as many Windows apps.

  7. Thib. says:

    I agree with Kenh with regards to sentiments about Windows XP help system. Similar to Kenh, I’ve been a Mac user since 1989 and exclusively owning only Macs (SE/30, Centris 650, PowerBook 540c, PowerBook G3, iBook, PowerBook G4, MacBook Pro) and have used System 6.0.4 all the way up to OS X 10.5.2 (not skipping any versions) so I’ve seen various iterations of the Mac help system. The help system has never been as good as Windows, which is unfortunate. However, the current help system is probably the best of what I recall of all the various Mac help systems including Tiger’s. If there is one thing Apple can copy from Windows, it would be the idea around their help system.

  8. Kaleberg says:

    Yes, Mac Help is SLOW! It frequently hangs, that is, just sits there with its wheel spinning for tens of minutes before I close its window. (The network is up and running just fine in every other application, so that isn’t the problem).

    Mac Help is also borderline unusable in that it blocks the application you are trying to work with. There isn’t even an easy toggle help/application keystroke. It’s kind of pathetic. I’m actually using Google and reading PDF files to get my help now.

    Apple might consider cribbing Amazon’s help icons. They have those little “What is this?” links that pop up windows next to various features and options. In fact, this suggests a way to help novices. Depending on your level of familiarity with the system, it could put up little question marks on dialogs. Clicking or hovering tells you what the button, or slider, or list box would let you do, and how to do it.

    Apple is constantly experimenting. Unfortunately, this means that they often break things that were working as they try to make them better. Someone will always protest when something changes. The trick is to sort the complaints about change from the complaints about worse.

  9. I’m really glad to hear what you folks perceive to be the flaws in Apple help. But other than cribbing the style used in Windows XP or Amazon, what can Apple do to take its Help feature to the next level?


  10. Kenh says:

    I don’t think it is a question of style, but of specific content. When you go to a help file, you need specific information about what to do about a problem, links to go to within the help file that will show you (using screen shots of control panels, etc) how to do what you need to do.

    I am a teacher who is unhappy with the quality of public education. However, my teacher training taught me that it takes an incredible amount of very specific planning to teach a lesson. You have to think about every aspect of the process. If you don’t, you lose your students and you won’t get them back.

    If you are working in Pages, to pick a random example, every single operation in every menu needs to have a help file showing how to do every step in that operation.

    And it needs to be in English, not Computer Geek English. What is the difference? Computer Geek English uses English words, but in completely different combinations that do a poor job of actually communicating because computer geeks, like accountants and bureaucrats of all kinds have this compulsive need to use jargon, acronyms, and other junk designed to “elevate” them from the great unwashed.

    It is a huge project. But we need to know that someone actually has carried out the operation in question and has the ability to explain what to do in common English.

    I don’t have the time to give specific examples. Maybe Apple carries the “just works” analogy so far that they think that to get down and dirty with very literal help files would somehow contradict the idea of “just works.”

    Yes, it does “just work” but I think Apple could enhance that by having better help files. In the last month, I have had to deal with 2 Windows switchers who needed very specific help in applications, and they are frustrated. I can’t blame them. Of course, they should not try to run a Mac using the “Windows way”!

    I helped convince both of them to buy. But it is not realistic to expect them to spend a lot of time experimenting like I do. They need specific screen shots, well written descriptions of how to do things, and I just don’t think Apple really sees the need!

    Yes, it is silly to navigate through a series of Microsoft Office help screens, link by link. But yet you get to the final result, strangely enough. (The downside is that it IS hard to remember how you got there, and that IS a problem for them)

    If I did not personally test every lesson plan that I write, and test every science experiment that I read about, I got burned in class every time, and I deserved it! I spend 2 hours planning for every hour that I teach. Yes, eventually I do develop tested lesson plans that I can re-use eventually, but it’s hell for the first couple of years of a new curriculum. And Yes, I do it on my own time because there is no other alternative. So much for “summer vacation.

    Apple IS doing better! Just not good enough for the switchers or new computer users.

    I just downloaded Skype. These people know how to do a logically sequenced set up screen.

    Apple has to bite the same bullet! Think everything out to the bitter end, Millions of dollars. Life is a hill. Get over it.

  11. Kenh says:

    And one more thing!

    EVERY,repeat EVERY, graphic icon should incorporate a text label. I deal with too damn many applications that require me to memorize visually what that stupid icon does. I am also a graphic designer and I can do it. Or at least allow a rollover or “right click” that tells me the function of that cute little icon.

    End of rant! 🙂

  12. Dave says:

    I’m still using Tiger, and for me, the Help system works pretty well. I just wish there was a way to clear the long list of applications in the drop-down menu, some of which I’ve never asked for help with!

  13. gopher says:

    My help system would not have any help menu whatsoever!

    Do away with the icons.

    Put the word Menus in bold text in the upper left corner. Clicking it reveals:
    All available menus are on the right hand side on this white bar. A checkbox would allow you to hide hints.

    Replace the Apple logo with the word “Apple”.

    Put the word Dock on the Dock.
    Put the word Applications under the Applications side of the Dock.
    Put the words Documents and Windows under the Documents, Folders, Volumes and Windows.

    Clicking on Applications would say Active and Aliased applications.
    Clicking on Documents, Folders, Volumes, Windows would reveal Shortcuts to favorite documents, folders, and volumes, and minimized windows with the middle control in the window’s upper left corner.
    A checkbox would allow you to hide the hints.

    If no hints are visible, the checkbox show hints would be available.

    And the Trash would regain its spot on the desktop!

    The help system would no longer be tied to Spotlight, and use a grep search and replace algorithm in the background.

    The Find Files would have separate indexing for Spotlight again, and be its own application like Find File was in Mac OS 9.

    Somewhere along the way, the idea that searching by content was cool got lost with the fact that hard drives are still not fast enough to index when all you want to do is locate files.

  14. Dana Sutton says:

    When Gene writes about the “help system” I’m not quite sure what he means, a.) the specific OSX Help system and the information it provides? b.) the implementation of the Help system that other developers can also use, accessed via the Help menu item available in any application (some just include a link that takes you to an online Help area), or c.) both? How you evaluate this “help system” maybe depends on which you mean. My own take is that the one for OSX is pretty good, I can usually find the information I need. But then again, I know my way around the Mac and I’m used to the language used in the Mac community, so it’s a hard for me to evaluate it from the viewpoint of a newbie. As for third-party applications that take advantage of the same system, as one would only expect, the quality of implementations ranges from excellent to godawful. But in any event this much is clear: if Apple were to radically overhaul its Help system, it would have to do so in such a way that current third-party implementations continued to work, or it would send a major shock wave through the software industry.

  15. I think it’s pretty clear from my article that I’m talking about Apple’s Help system, since I suggest ways to improve it in 10.6.


  16. SteveP says:

    I agree with almost all of the sentiment about the “help” system. Thanks for raising the issue.
    Particularly the post by Kenh re: specific content.

    No one, however, has addressed the issue of manuals. Yes, I know that including manuals is just not done. I understand all the aftermarket books etc.
    However, it seems to me that a “GOOD” ‘features’ manual for each app – in combination with the practical help suggested by Kenh and Gene would be a big improvement.
    At least for me, looking in ‘help’ is not as productive as it could/should be because I don’t know what I’m looking for. I don’t know the capabilities of the program. If I had a list and it mentioned that OSX can do ‘this’ and I found that feature easily on that list, THEN I could go to the Help system to find details or procedures etc.
    For ME, MUCH better.

  17. Lawrence Rhodes says:

    > I have run into lots of long-time Mac users for whom an Open dialog is an unknown, an unfathomable mystery.

    Something actually unfathomable about the Open dialog in Preview (in Tiger, at least): You can’t open a graphic file which lacks a filename extension using the Open dialog — it’s grayed-out. But, if the filetype and creator (“prvw”) are set, double-clicking the file opens it in Preview. And then you can reopen it from the Open Recent menu. I’ve had a bug open on this since Tiger came out. Just out of curiosity, does Leopard fail the same way?

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