If you're looking for some new user assistance tricks to enhance your product, you might want to take a close look at the Microsoft Office 2007 help. The technical writers and developers at Microsoft have put together a help system that is incredibly user-friendly and accessible. (Why can't I be as smart as those guys?) Here are just a few of the help features that caught my eye.
Instant search - When you launch the help, the cursor immediately appears in the Search field. This allows users to find the information they need using their own words. This is a stark contrast to three-pane layouts that default to showing an index or table of contents. While such navigation features offer strengths of their own, they require users to map their thoughts to the terms that technical writers have hard-coded into the navigation. The Search feature lets the computer handle such conceptual mapping.
Browse list - Under the Search field is nicely-organized menu of help topics for users who prefer not to use Search. This menu is sparse and high-level, and can be scanned quickly. Although it takes some clicking and guessing to dig down to specific information, the menu does a nice job of complimenting the Search without overwhelming users.
Topic icons - Microsoft uses icons for different types of help topics. When a list of available help topics appears, the icon next to the topic tells users whether the topic is part of the locally-installed help, or whether it accesses information on a server. This is great for users who aren't connected 24/7, or those who don't want to wait for information to download.
Look and feel - The help has a light, airy feel to it. Even dense procedures seem welcoming and easy on the eyes. At times the color of headings and text is a bit too light, and might be hard to read for those with poor eyesight. But overall, the use of white space and lighter colors is soothing and makes reading the help a much more enjoyable process.
Breadcrumbs - Office 2007 help offers a great example of how to use breadcrumbs effectively. Whether you reach a topic via browsing or from the Search field, the breadcrumb navigation gives a strong sense of where you are in the help. I often find myself clicking the last link in the breadcrumb path to go up a level to conceptually related help topics.
Demo labels - Topic titles for software demos are clearly labeled. The word "Demo:" precedes the title of each. This makes it very easy to find the demos when browsing the help, and see that you are about to download something when you click the link to the demo topics.
Screenshots - Office 2007 help has some of the most attractive and useful screenshots I've ever seen. Many are cropped with fancy Bezier curves and sport drop shadows. While you might think such things would distract readers, they are actually quite appealing and add to the pleasant look and feel of the help. Also, most of the screenshots have very useful captions, and are effectively used for illustrating concepts in the help. I can't imagine how much time the technical writing staff put into these shots. Well done.
"In this article" links - Many lengthier help topics in the Office 2007 help are preceded by "In this article" menus that link to subsections of those topics. These menus serve as useful tables of contents for seeing what material each topic covers, and accessing that content quickly.
User-friendly feedback form - The server-based feedback form at the bottom of most help topics is both elegant and unobtrusive. The form itself only appears after you click one of the "Was this information helpful" buttons, so it doesn't distract your attention from the content. Also, the form is smart enough to realize which button you've clicked, and asks you for appropriate feedback based on your choice.
Tags - Office 2007 help topics often contain a list of tags. These tags are used to group similar content that is available via Microsoft Online. The help topic "What are tags?" implies that the tags are generated by other people, but I'm not sure if this means other Office 2007 users, or technical writers at Microsoft. (Does anyone happen to know the answer to this one? If so, please share by leaving a comment.) If the tags are user-generated, I have to give Microsoft kudos for adding them to the help.
Again, this list just scratches the surface. The help for Office has improved vastly over previous releases, and I was really impressed by the way help was implemented. So if you want to learn a few tricks for your technical writing bag, spend a little time in Office 2007 and grab a few ideas from the smart folks at Redmond.