I’ve recently discovered that a program’s help function heavily affects its accessibilty and usage levels.
The reason being? When you don’t know something, the help function can either magically solve it, or irritatingly make the problem more complicated.
Microsoft Word 2010. Microsoft have, since its 2007 version, adopted a special help system where frequent problems and solutions are downloaded onto the client’s computer, while keeping the bulk of its help functions online. This way, should a user face a problem without an internet connection, the majority of problems can still be fixed.
Xara Photo and Graphic Designer 7. Xara have used the built-in help system for Windows, compiling the help files and asking Windows’ system to provide the help function instead. All of the help files are stored on the user’s computer, allowing complete help access even without connection to the internet.
Adobe Indesign 5. Adobe have used a completely internet-based help system, with the help function opening up the client’s default web browser and accessing Adobe’s webpage. Of course, if the user was without an internet connection, most of the functions would then be completely inaccessible.
In terms of help functions, I can completely imagine a situation when a heavy-working advertising agent had to go out to the local coffee shop and pitch their company, only to not know how the program works. During then, he wouldn’t have an internet connection, so I feel that Indesign’s approach of a full-internet based help function is unrealistic. Most users now need to move around without an internet connection and the loss of a help function doesn’t assist in a program’s usability.
Following that train of thought, I am inclined to lean towards Microsoft’s dual-internet-offline system, because most people would require the same solution for the same, common problem. This way, Microsoft can assist in the majority of offline-help-needing users, online-help-needing users, while the offline-little-seen-problems users would be inconvenienced, but such a chance is significantly reduced.