Get the Most from your Expensive Software
Do you ever find yourself telling people that you know just enough to do what you need with Microsoft Word or Excel and nothing more? It’s very common that most folks learn only what they “need” to use and that’s all they know.
I have a few very powerful and expen$ive programs like Photoshop, and Microsoft Office. I frequently find myself telling friends, “I know this program can do so much more but I probably only use 5% of its capability”. Over the years I may be up to 10% but I’m certainly under utilizing features that could both make me more productive and make me look more professional.
My open question to readers today is “How do you learn to use your software? Do you want to learn more?” Currently we have a number of resources available but they’re so underutilized it’s a shame.
Many programs have a feature that provides a “Did You Know...” when you first open up a program. I’m sure companies spend a lot of time creating daily tips but it’s one of the first things I turn off. Does anyone out there actually use these daily tips?
Do you remember the Microsoft Office animated Help Agent?. You could change the clippy character to a dog or other fun character. Once thought to be the ultimate way to teach users how to learn Clippy was a novel approach using a sophisticated algorithm. Users found it insulting and “How to disabled Clippy" soon became a popular tip.
This was another approach hailed by User Experience experts as the future way we’d all learn about using our software. Microsoft created a set of window dialog types designed to support wizard sequences. While wizards are great tools commonly used for performing a single task they’re rarely used as an education tool.
This maybe one of the best improvements in helping users how to learn more about their computer. By holding the mouse over a button or other control a message will appear which explains what this object does and/or can be used for. Users are often afraid of unknown actions and fear making a screwing up. The tool tip takes away this apprehension. Unfortunately, many tool tips are completely useless and repeat the same text already visible on the screen.
Guess what? Help files really work. I highly recommend you re-think your use of Help Files. Think about how often do you use Google or Bing to look up something want to know? You should be doing the same in your favorite program. You paid big bucks for a program like Office and you should be getting your money’s worth. Windows Help is a dedicated search engine for your application.
Typically, the quickest way to access Help search is just press F1. In many cases, F1 will be linked directly to a current task. Ironically, the same week I’m recommending you all use F1, Microsoft has published a security advisory on not using F1 when browsing the web. “… a malicious Web site displayed a specially crafted dialog box and a user pressed the F1 key, arbitrary code could be executed in the security context of the currently logged-on user.”
As software developers what can we do so users learn how to use all the cool, powerful features we’ve included and that they’ve paid for. It’s common to use focus groups and collect user feedback. Ultimately, the best way for folks to learn more about their software is for developers to make it more natural, intuitive and especially consistent.
Perhaps in the future we’re have dynamic interfaces that learn what the user expects. Meanwhile, take a moment and check out the help file in your favorite programs.