Full Disclosure – my former company, WexTech Systems, developed and marketed the first commercial online help authoring tool, Doc-To-Help.  I use online assistance a lot and expect it to be, well, helpful.

Is it me, or has the quality of online help / user assistance declined in the past few years?  For example, when was the last time you saw a “what’s this?” feature inside a dialog box?  When was the last time you saw a dialog box with a help button?  Indeed, when was the last time you pressed Function Key F1 and something besides the main help page appeared, saving you the trouble of having to find the right help topic?

I spend a lot of time working with two programs, Tableau for data visualization and Sibelius for music notation.  I love both of these programs, but they both make me work a lot harder than I would like when I’m trying to understand a concept or complete a task.

The problem is not that the online help is poorly written.  On the contrary, the writing and examples are first class.  The problem is that I have to work a lot harder than I would like to actually find the topic that answers the questions I have.

In all fairness, Tableau’s online help / documentation is significantly better than Sibelius’, but Sibelius shipped with a 650+-page manual that has a really good index.

As for Tableau, under ideal circumstances I’d like it so that any time I’m flummoxed I’d be able to click someplace in the UI and the UI would take me to exactly the right topic in the online help.  Short of that, I’d at least like to see the return of a feature that disappeared with the release of Tableau 6.0:

The Index Button

While full text search – especially one with good word stemming, synonymy and disambiguation – is great to have, I maintain that it’s harder to find topics with Tableau versions 6.0 and later than it was with versions 5.2 and earlier.  Is this added difficulty solely the result of no Index feature?  Almost certainly not, as the product itself is much richer and the attendant online user documentation is more complex.

The beloved Index feature in the online help for Tableau 5.2

But putting it back wouldn’t hurt, would it?

Note: I realize that the ultimate goal is to fashion a product so easy and intuitive that a user never needs additional assistance via online help.  I think Tableau has made incredible strides with creating user affordances.

But you still need a good help system and you need to get users to the answers they need, when they need them.