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The 10.6 Report: What About the Help System?

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?