One of the most interesting epiphanies I've had over the last few years seems on the surface like a paradox: "help" in Office is mostly used by experts and enthusiasts.

How can this be?  I think my biased assumption was that experts know how to use the software already and eager novices would be poring over the documentation trying to learn how to be more effective using it.

Yet, in usability tests we see it again and again: novices and intermediates click around and experiment, experts try to reason things out and look them up in help.

Why is that?  I don't know the answer, but I can speculate.

Most help today is designed around the model of answering a question.  You type the keyword into the search box, or browse through an index, and an explanatory article comes up.  So far, so good--assuming you know exactly the name of the command or concept you want to look up.  Unfortunately, this is something experts are far more likely to be in tune with.

So, maybe you don't know the term "mail merge", but the help system is smart and you type "print holiday letter" and it brings up "mail merge" as a possible hit.  You still have to recognize that "mail merge" is the right answer to "print holiday letter."

Help me!

I think help is getting better at linking people to articles that are more around scenarios and walkthroughs, but the terminology barrier is still there--and experts are the people most likely to know the "magic" words to bring up what they're looking for.

Another reason help tends to not be used by beginners may be that help is not really conducive to learning.  It's more like a recipe than a community college course.  The official line on manuals is "no one reads manuals" and maybe that's true, but there are a lot of people buying books to learn how to use software.  (There's even a popular series of books called "missing manuals.")

A book is way better than help if you're trying to become familiar with a piece of software--it has a narrative, it might be funny sometimes, you can take it into your bed with you, and it's designed to teach, not to troubleshoot.

The night more than two years ago when I decided to leave Outlook and take the job working on the Office user interface, my first action was to go Barnes & Noble and buy a thick book about Excel.  I felt like I knew it less well than Word and PowerPoint, and I wanted to learn everything it was capable of.  It's no surprise I didn't press F1 instead; that's not really what traditional "help" was designed for.

Help also requires a context switch today.  The process of experimenting with the product to see what is in it and what it's capable of is totally removed from opening the help window and looking inside to see articles are in there.  To the extent that people learn the software through playing with it, they never experience the value of help.  The product organization and the help organization are two different, often non-complementary, attempts to rationalize the capability of the software.  We haven't done a good job of building the right bridges between them.

Of course, there may be a lot of other factors which contribute to the varied usage of help.  For instance, no one really needs an article on "Bold"; perhaps experts use more of the powerful and involved features, and thus benefit from the help system more.

Alan Cooper talks about "perpetual intermediates" in The Inmates Are Running the Asylum.  The idea, paraphrased, is that most people using software are "intermediates."  Beginners don't stay that way for long, but most people don't have the time, energy, or desire to become truly elite "experts."  I believe that it is precisely these intermediates who don't rely on the help system.  In fact, they might be defined by their general unwillingness to look features up in the "command encyclopedia."  Experience shows that intermediates tend to explore the product, not the help system.

None of this is intended as a specific dig against help by the way.  I do think that help can continue to improve, and for sure the internet community itself is the world's most powerful help system.  Office Online in particular is a second-to-none portal for all things Office, and they really have pushed the bounds of what you can do in creating community around assistance, templates, support, and learning.  In fact, I'm actually bullish on help, and later this week I'll introduce how we've integrated it into the Ribbon in an attempt to introduce even more people to help.

But it's worth noting that if you're authoring your help system for newcomers, you might be designing for the wrong kind of person.