Is Online Help Really Helpful?

by Janet M. Brandon

Jan Brandon is an online help writer and author, employed by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES). AAFES is headquartered in Dallas, Texas, and provides retail services to more than 7.8 million members of the military and their families serving in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific. Jan is currently attending Amber University to earn her Master's degree in Business Administration. She can be reached by telephone at (214) 312-2697, or via her internet address, brandon@aafes.com.


There's an open question regarding online help … is it really helpful? This study was conducted to answer that question. This is an important issue because if software developers, online help authors and technical writers aren't really sure that online help is helpful, or don't have any idea of why it isn't, they won't have the information they need to design and write help systems that successfully meet users' expectations and needs. The consequences of not meeting those expectations and needs may be costly:

users will be presented with software products that confuse and frustrate them;

software developers will lose valuable business because customers won't buy upgrades;

online help authors and writers won't have the basic foundational data they need to build a help system that's fluid, logical and useful.

The question is simply, then, "Is online help really helpful"? And answering, it the purpose of this research report.


Software developers and online help users: Where are they "coming from"?

Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond (1997) provided valuable insight into the mindset of both online help users and software developers. They observe that most computer users prefer trying a software product out for themselves as their "training," then reaching for the online help when they're "stumped" in hopes of getting a quick answer to their question. The article gives a clear indication of the users' attitudes toward online help: they're not comfortable using a software product that doesn't offer online assistance, and they want that assistance to be understandable and uncomplicated, so they can get the information they need quickly and easily. Further insight is given by Millar (1998), who wrote that with fewer, less-educated workers in the working environment, software products need to provide adequate, immediate help; employees just simply don't have the time to sift through manuals to find answers to their questions while they're using their computers. The research report also points out that the cost of printing manuals makes online help not only desirable from the user's standpoint, but from the employer's standpoint as well, because of the cost of time and money to read and produce manuals: Bottom line is that providing online help has become a matter of economics as well as convenience.

It's been this researcher's experience that the attitude of software developers toward online help is one that can only be described as wanting. They don't consider online help an important part of their applications because they don't think it's necessary. Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond (1997) confirm that opinion and reveal their own experience with software developers, when they ask, "Why do software developers immediately start looking for the garlic and a cross when someone mentions online help"? (p. 53). And go on to suggest that the possible reason is because they hope the product they've designed is so intuitive, users won't need it.

To sum up, computer users want and need some type of online help; and they don't want to do a whole lot of thinking, searching, or navigating, to get it. The attitude of most software developers toward online help is one of resignation rather than appreciation. But have they been "in touch" with their customers?

The users "speak"

Grayling (1998) documented important data regarding users, and what they're actually saying. The research report listed common end-user complaints, then described in detail, the parameters of the usability test conducted to test their software company's online help, and the results. The study revealed that users will ignore online help unless it's designed carefully, that the design of the help system will determine whether or not it's utilized or ignored.

Better ideas for design and documentation

Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond (1997) and Grayling (1998) provided this researcher with helpful guidelines for designing online help that adheres to the user's needs and desires. Cline (1996) added to the mix by identifying ways that help files can be created and organized, so that navigation through online help is smoother and less frustrating for the end-user. The effect that the transition from manuals to online help is having on users was covered by Millar (1998); and the study gave direction to online help writers and authors that would sensitively lead users into that new world, with their confidence in tact. The report also provided ways to design and write online help that covers the issues that have arisen because of that evolution.

To summarize

The literature cited in this study was rich with insightful observations. The researchers used precise and deliberate test methods to reach their conclusions. And the authors of the research reports and articles shared clear, concise, and uncomplicated design and documentation ideas that if followed, can result in the development of online help systems that will better serve users and software developers.


A user is any individual who uses a computer, regardless of their level of expertise, or amount of time spent using a computer.

A novice is a computer user who intermittently uses only the software designed by their employer, specifically to accomplish their particular tasks.

An expert is a computer user who regularly uses software applications such as Word, Excel, and WordPerfect.


This study is delimited to the test subjects available at the researcher's employer's location for a three-week period. This report is also delimited to the Irving Public Library, and source selection.


A limitation in this research report is the selection of variables used in the questionnaire that are vague, and are therefore left open for personal interpretation. Examples are "sometimes," and "very."



The test subjects were computer users who are employed by the same employer as the researcher, with varying levels of computer experience, from notice (approximately 75%) to expert (approximately 25%). The participants desired were individuals who had used one of the company-designed software applications for which this researcher, as part of a team, wrote and edited the online help; five were located, and the others were selected because they regularly used other software applications such as MicrosoftÒ Word, Excel and WordPerfect. There were 15 test subjects; they came from various cultural backgrounds, and ranged in age from 25 to 55; all but one were female.


A questionnaire (see Appendix A) was the apparatus used to assemble user response to the online help systems they've used.


During a period of approximately one week, the participants were located and given the questionnaire. They were asked to complete the form within the following two weeks, then call the researcher to have it picked up. The forms were completed and turned in as requested. The location of the researcher's employer served as the setting of the study.



The significant results that can be drawn from the participants' response to the questionnaire are:

Users utilize online help sometimes, but not regularly

Online help is almost always a source of support when using new applications

Online help is sometimes helpful, but not very helpful

Getting work done is made easier with online help

Users consider online help easy to use

Users want online help included in software applications

Users find online help more useable than manuals

Questionnaire Results Table



Use online help sometimes


Include online as a help resource when using new applications


Consider online help sometimes helpful


State getting their jobs done is easier when using online help 53%


State online help is easy to use


Think online help should always be a part of the application


Think online help is more useable than written manuals


*See Appendix B for all of the percentages from the respondents for each of the options on the questionnaire.


There were four comments on the questionnaire.

In response to "Online Help is: Easy to use, Difficult to use, Haven't decided," a participant chose both Easy to use and Difficult to use, and wrote "depends on the application and how Help is presented."

In response to "I'd like the online Help to have: More text, More graphics, Text and graphics," one user chose Text and graphics, and commented that "depends upon the type of information I'm searching for."

Another user, responding to the same questionnaire item as above, chose More text, and added "user-friendly text."

In response to "I think online Help is: More, Less, usable than written manuals," the user chose More, and stipulated "if written in a user-friendly manner."

Why are the comments significant? Because they represent the users' attitude toward online help that's been reported in earlier studies. "If online help is perceived to be intrusive and irritating, we can surmise that users will be less inclined to use it and may well even look for ways to disable it." (Grayling 1998, p. 174); and "users don't go to the online help to be intellectually challenged, they go there to solve a problem." (Fabian-Isaacs and Raymond 1997, p. 56)

The users have "had their say." They've filled out the form, dutifully had them collected, the results have been tallied, and next, the message received.



Is online help really helpful? Yes, sometimes. A new revelation? No. As noted in this study, several other writers and researchers have come to the same conclusion in their reports and articles. Online help is really helpful, sometimes; but its helpfulness depends on how well it's designed, whether or not users are able to find answers to their questions, quickly and easily, without endless digging and deciphering.


Research studies need to continue, and they should be more in-depth and varied. All types of users from "first ever" through advanced need to be tested on a variety of online help systems, and for all types of software applications, in order to get more clarification of "what works" and what doesn't. The differences between the novice and expert users needs to be documented as well, to determine whether or not "inexperience" has a significant effect on their usability of a Help system. There also needs to be follow-up studies done that track users from one point in their online help experience to another; what improvements they've seen, what's still a problem, and how much their familiarity with online help improved their performance and attitude toward it.

Software developers need to make a regular practice of performing usability studies so they'll have the user feedback they need to enable them to develop applications that won't be complicated to use. They should also develop software that's specific to online help to provide users with an opportunity to become "educated" and informed regarding the "particulars" of online help. Online help authors and writers can further the cause of creating genuinely functional help systems by looking through previous research reports and articles for design and documentation ideas that, if implemented, can give them the "edge" in their help system development, and that may allay previous mistakes and miscues.

As users become more accustomed to the concept, commands and design of online help, many of the roadblocks that stand in the way of their being readily helped online, will disappear; and that will strengthen the bond as well, between participant and product.

This study hasn't produced any new or startling revelations; it merely underscores the fact that as online help writers and authors, we haven't been producing a product that consistently satisfies users. Instead of enabling them to get answers to their questions without intense effort, they're having to reach, look, search, and finally, often, retreat.

But perhaps that, in itself, makes this study important. It adds to the information cauldron that with enough substance, tasting and testing, may result in the creation of a product that is as attractively presented as a fine meal, "goes down" just as well, and is as totally satisfying.


Copyright © 1998 by Jan Brandon