User help (sort of) WIN: Apple Help Center

This is part 1 of my User Help WINS and FAILS that I announced a week ago.

Last night, my wife came and told me that the software package that she had just downloaded wouldn’t install. My wife is pretty good at using computers, so I knew that there had to have been something strange going on when she came and got me.

I made my way up to her computer to see if I could be of any assistance. I started by clicking on the installation package that she had downloaded. This is the error message that opened:

Help screen that opened when I double-clicked the installation package.

Help screen that opened when I double-clicked the installation package.

This error message is great at telling me what the problem is, but it provides very little information about what to actually do about it. And honestly, in a world of malware and viruses, I’m thankful for security measures that try to protect my system. But in this case, I knew the software was safe, and I wanted to install it.

Luckily for me, there was a question mark icon on the bottom left of the screen! That’s great! Of course, I am the type of person that looks for things like question mark icons on screens, and I can see how someone wouldn’t see that icon, or, if they saw it, not even know it was clickable. In this error message, the bias that is programmed is clearly for someone to just click on the glowing “OK” button, in which case this error message closes and the user is right back to square 1.

I think Apple could improve this by making the question mark icon more apparent. Maybe they could label it “Get Help” or something and have it stand out like the OK button does. It’s great that the button is there, but it needs to be more visible.

In my wife’s first attempt at installing, she actually did click the question mark. This is what opens when you click it:

Apple help screen that opened when I clicked the question mark icon on the previous screen.

Apple help screen that opened when I clicked the question mark icon on the previous screen.

This is where my wife gave up. This screen is very unapproachable at first glance. Its structure seems to say, “You’ve really done something you shouldn’t do, and here is the big long technical explanation of what it is.” I’m not saying this is bad content; on the contrary, it’s quite important that people understand the risks they are taking by installing software that may be harmful. In our case though, we knew that the software was safe, and we wanted to install it. While very informative, this help didn’t get us any closer to our goal. Frustration builds, and for all but the most avid user help gurus, google is the next stop (if they even get this far).

From looking at the screen above, you would never know that the help article continues, and that there is more content below. I realize that it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that this particular help file happened to fit just right in the default Help window size, but still, there is absolutely no indication anywhere on the screen that there is additional content below. Not even when I hover over the screen with my mouse do I get an indication that I can scroll down. The only way that I could find to scroll down was to use the scroll wheel function on my mouse. Only after I started scrolling did a floating scroll bar appear on the right of the screen, and that immediately vanished when I stopped scrolling.

After I had scrolled down, I finally got to the information that I was looking for:

Information on the apple help screen that appeared after I scrolled down.

Information on the apple help screen that appeared after I scrolled down.

There are the clear steps that I wanted from the very beginning. I followed these steps, and the application installed and worked wonderfully!


The Bad:

  • How to get into the help system wasn’t readily apparent. The question mark icon can be improved.
  • It took a long time for me to get to the information that actually addressed my problem.
  • How to navigate the help system wasn’t intuitive or obvious.

The Good:

  • There actually was a context-sensitive help system that addressed the problem! It’s amazing how frequently context-sensitive help is overlooked in design and development.
  • The help was quite informative, and while it frustrated me that it took a while to get to the procedural steps I needed, I concede that I came away more aware of the dangers of installing potentially damaging software on my system.

What I learned:

  • Context-sensitive help is critical. Even as an avid help guru, I wouldn’t have gone out to find an Apple manual to try to solve my problem. I already knew this, but this experience reinforced it.
  • Help needs to be easy to find and access from the interface. Apple could improve this in this scenario.
  • The help system itself must be intuitive. In this case, the Apple Help Center needs a scrollbar if there is more content.
  • The closer you can put the resolution to a problem to the problem itself, the better. For example, I would have loved a clickable drop-down on the initial error message itself that gave me steps to resolve my problem.

The verdict: WIN

Even though I have reservations about some of the overall design of the help, in the end, this help solved my problem. I doubt, however, that people who aren’t as computer savvy or who don’t analyze help systems would have been able to successfully navigate to the answer.

What are your thoughts?

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