NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, January 2005
PC Help Is -- Sometimes -- Just a Mouseclick Away
by Gabe Goldberg, APCUG Advisor, Region 2,
and columnist for AARP’s Computer and Technology Web Site

Who'd have thought that a Beatles song highlights a great PC resource for solving problems and answering questions? No, it's not "Ask Me Why" or "Do You Want to Know a Secret". It's "Help!".

All Windows versions (Windows 95, 98, ME. XP, etc.) and most applications have built-in Help facilities. Knowing how to fetch Help information leads to happy PC use, saves having to wait for others to answer questions, and can even make you an expert resource for other people!

But there's no free lunch; Help can't read your mind and answer questions before you ask them. And to get information you need, you have to look in the right places.

Help info is stored in special files and retrieved through Help software. The info and software is similar but not identical throughout Windows versions and applications, so general rules apply. The good news is that it's easy to explore Help information; since it's most useful to read about topics in which you're interested, feel free to replace my examples with your own questions or areas of interest.

Most applications respond to several cues for help: pressing the F1 key, clicking the word Help on the menu bar, and pressing alt-H (hold Alt key and press H key).

Pressing F1 opens the Help system, while pressing the alt-H key or clicking menu bar Help provide a short pulldown of Help options. However you enter Help, you'll see buttons or tabs such as Contents and Search. You may also see buttons such as Getting Started, Basic Features, Errors, and Frequently Asked Questions.

For example, I recently installed the Mozilla browser. Its Help provides four tabs: Contents shows main topics and subtopics, Search explores Help information, Index lists all topics alphabetically, and Glossary provides definitions of terms used. Many applications use Microsoft Help standards tabs: Contents, Index, and Answer Wizard. This wizard replaces searching, allowing entry of questions needing answers.

Clicking Contents reveals a list of topics aimed at getting specific things done. Mozilla's tasks include Browsing the Web, Using Mail, and Bookmarks. Many tasks have a "+" next to them; clicking the + reveals lists of subtasks. Most helpful in learning to use Mozilla Help is Using the Help Window, whose subtasks include Finding the Topic You Want and Search Tips.

When you have a question that isn't task related, consult the Help information index for an alphabetical list of entries. Mozilla Help entries range from Account Settings, Address Books, and Bookmarks, to Toolbar, Uploading Pages, and Working Offline.

When you aren't sure what task or major topic includes info you need, try searching. Searching Mozilla Help for "bookmarks" found many places the topic is mentioned which are not listed in the index. Unfortunately, computers still only do what we tell them to do, rather than what we mean. So words you search for must match how Help information is labeled. If a search fails, search again for other words that describe the information you're seeking.

You can open Windows Help by clicking Start and then Help or pressing F1 when viewing the desktop; retrieve tips on using Help by entering (in the Index or Search boxes) a term such as "getting help". Similarly, valuable productivity tips are available by searching on "keyboard shortcuts".

As you explore Help and navigate through its information, remember that you're leaving a trail, as you do when you surf the Web. You can always click the Back button to return to a previous display, and click Forward to repeat your path.

Other information nuggets are available.

Many dialogue boxes -- often requiring making baffling choices -- include a Help button. It's easy to miss this valuable button; dialogue box Help buttons have the special advantage of providing "context help" -- that is, taking you directly to info describing the open dialogue box without requiring searching or clicking.

Another tool, even easier to miss, is the "What's this?" symbol on many dialogue boxes, a "?" in the upper right corner. Clicking this turns the mouse cursor into a traveling question mark. Move the ? over a term or menu and click; this will display a brief explanation of the item you clicked. Beware, though: usefulness of this tool varies. It requires developers to spend thought/time/effort supplying suitable information for each box and button. Some do this, others cut corners.

Finally, the most automatic information is displayed when you place the mouse cursor over a toolbar button. Called hints or tooltips, this information usually displays by default. If it doesn't, application-specific options can be changed to enable it.

It's easy to forget that Help info is available. A colleague reported that after wondering for quite some time how to add multiple rows to an Excel spreadsheet, he finally consulted Help. He was rewarded by the simple answer: "To insert multiple rows, select rows immediately below where you want the new rows. Select the same number of rows as you want to insert". Lesson learned: Help is your friend.

This article appeared originally on AARP's Computers and Technology Web site, <aarp.org/computers>. (c) AARP 2004. Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution by non-profit organizations with text reproduced unchanged and this paragraph included.

There is no restriction against any non-profit group using this article as long as it is kept in context with proper credit given the author. The Editorial Committee of the Association of Personal Computer User Groups (APCUG), an international organization of which this group is a member, brings this article to you.

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