Everything you want to know about Visual Studio ALM and Farming
Brian Harry is a Microsoft Technical Fellow working as the Product Unit Manager for Team Foundation Server. Learn more about Brian.
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Over the past few couple of months, I’ve seen some negative community feedback on the new help system – not universally, but enough that it’s been concerning me. The truth is, though, I’ve been so busy with the performance work that other than pinging the help team every once in a while to make sure they were hearing the feedback, I really haven’t had time to understand it.
When I was in Redmond this week, I finally got a couple of hours to sit down with the help team and the new TFSServerManager app I’m building and play with it. I can now say that I really don’t understand the intensity of some of the feedback. I’m hoping some of you can help me.
Before I launch into my perspective, let me give you some context. When I spent the vast majority of every day typing code, I used help quite a lot (most of it was pre-IntelliSense days, so I really used it a lot). At that time, my primary mode of using help was the keyword index. Search sucked and the keyword index was by far the fastest way to find what you were looking for. In more recent years I find IntelliSense has dramatically reduced (but not eliminated) my reliance on help. Although, I must say, as an aside, that in 2010, my reliance on help is dwindling even further because it now finds members that match by arbitrary substring. Anyway, in the last few years, MSDN has been my help system – yes it doesn’t work when you are offline, but I find I don’t do all that much offline programming and I get by without it. So, the truth is, I haven’t used (or even installed) VS help in several years now.
So, please take that as context for all of my comments here. Your experience is probably very different and that’s what I’m hoping to learn from.
So, I sat down to try out the new help system. I wanted to try both online and offline help. Installing local help was really easy, I just ran the help manager from the Visual Studio Start menu folder, picked the subset of help I wanted locally. It then proceeded to download the help in the background. In the mean time I played with online help. When the download was done, I played with local help.
The first time I launched help, it was really slow. After that, I had occasional occurrences of slowness but not often and by and large help was WAY faster than using MSDN. The help system did a reasonable job finding the help topic I was looking for but definitely had some issues (see my list of issues below) and all, in all I found the experience to be quite reasonable and better (except in a couple of ways) than using MSDN directly. I think with a few improvements that the help team committed to making before we ship, I’m a convert to the new help system and will use it instead of MSDN directly.
Not everything was rosy and I don’t know that I can remember every issue I hit (the help team was watching me and taking notes, so I know they got them all but I just have my memory right now on the airplane :)). Here’s the notable things I remember. I’ve put them in decreasing order of importance (in my book)…
So, that’s my brain dump on things that could be better about the new help system. The new help system has a lot of benefits and a number of areas for improvement but my assessment is that, overall, it’s pretty good. I’ve seen feedback from some people who I think would describe the new help system as very bad but I don’t really understand it. Can someone help me?
One thing I will say is that I’ve been looped in on a few thread/forum posts between members of the help team and some people in the community with feedback and I don’t think we’ve always handled the feedback very well. I saw one thread this week where I would say we were down right condescending. I’ve given very strong feedback to the management of the help team about that and I think they are taking steps to deal better with the feedback and ensure we are listening, keeping an open mind and doing everything we can to address concerns.