Bits from Bill

Technology thoughts leaking from the brain of "Bill Pytlovany"

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

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.

Daily Tips
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?

dailytipTip of Day from WS-FTP

paperclip 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.

Tool Tips

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.

Help Files
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.”

What’s Next?

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.


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Anonymous Jason said...

Another tool I use to learn advanced features in my software is user forums. For example, I wanted to know how to make numbered lists in Open Office, but didn't know what to search for in the help. I tried searching for "list", "sequence", "rank" etc., but turned up nothing. Thankfully Open Office has a good user forum where people can post messages and get help from more advanced users and that is how I have gotten my answers to many questions. Is there such a forum for WinPatrol?

7:29 AM  
Blogger Scuttlebutt said...

I use forums, books,, and Google because I have found the help features of programs to be less than adequate. I have found that most books, for example, are well-written regarding HOW to do something but have poor troubleshooting sections. I would love to see more books published on what to do when something goes wrong with a program or OS.

1:17 PM  
Blogger Reb Mordechai Reviews said...

The most important part of a user/reference/help guide is its index. Not enough time and effort is spent on the index content these days.I remember the excellent Digital VAX/Alpha VMS manuals I relied on some 20 years ago. You could find everything you needed quickly. When you did find it they gave you real life useful examples! I kid you not! Often I find myself twisting myself in prestels trying to search for something in Visual Studio or Office. The Digital manual's indexes were written by human beings and not auto generated. They listened to programmers and what they wanted to know and made sure it went in the index. I suppose a system wherebye if you cannot find what you want, the search phrase is sent to a human being to review and add to the index for next time would be a good thing. Oh I remember what a pleasure it was to use Digital's DEC Pascal reference guide...happy days.

10:49 AM  
Anonymous Buffalo said...

Hmmm, 5-10% ... Sounds about right to me. In fact, I use a text editor to compose and then if it needs fancy formating, I may copy it into a word processor. "Fancy", in this case, is usually really rudimentary. I don't need to learn about the esoteric tricks my apps can do, obviously. I think most of my application programs actually need to be divested of their bloat.

Most manuals just run through all the controls and define them as if that is going to make you productive with the software. This is another product which has suffered from bloat (better known as verbosity.)

1:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know every trick each piece of sw I have can do, that's lack of time. But I do try to secure my privacy & security & it seems like a never-ending quest. It's hard to decipher: my firewall/hips combo covers me for x,y,z - but not w. My realtime AV/anti-malware covers these listed threats, my machine is still open to these threats. These are the options to cover all areas. If I choose product x, my choices for covering threat y are narrowed to... The best way to protect all areas will or won't work in raal life cause they can't play together.

when it comes to securty sw & maintaining my privacy (financial info, secure shopping, what sites I frequent, who my contacts are) there is a great need for reliable education. Consumers need to understand what risks exist & what the alternatives are to protect ourselves. It is almost impossible for us to figure out which sw solution will work while the other is enabled? & which kind of threat we are in need of protection from even though x (& y) is already installed on our pc (with z as an on-demand scanner ;) ). Is there a difference between a trojan & a backdoor? If I have anti-malware, does it protect me from privacy threats? do I need both HIPS & threatfire? Will they fight with each other, slow down my machine, & disable each other from protecting me when a real intrusion occurs? or do each cover a different threat & both should be enabled real-time? Which brands are effective vs scams & do they play together? If I have a sandbox, do I also need an anti-keylogger? If I have anti-rootkit scanning, am I safe from screenshots, re-directs, man in the middle, drive by downloads? Can my password manager's info be stolen? I need a chart with all the potential security & privacy risks listed & explained in simple English, with the possible combinations of reliable sw that will protect against each. Then I need to know which features to enable (vs default settings of the sw) to achieve what I am trying to do.

1 thing is for sure: Winpatrol is a fail-safe & checking the PLUS database has saved me countless times!

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

on new laptops with windows 7 how do u put both progam alone side each other

2:47 PM  

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