Figuring Out Windows Programs When You Can’t Find the Manual

January 11, 2009

in applications,Windows

by Gabe Goldberg

Which Beatles song describes an under-used PC resource for solving problems and answering questions? It’s not “Ask Me Why?” or “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” It’s “Help”!

Since Windows’ early days, Windows itself and most applications have included information on setting configuration options, usage, and problem determination. Being able to access this material lets you deal with problems whenever they occur, rather than waiting to call an expensive or frustrating support line during working hours. It leads to better productivity, can be faster than Google searching or pestering friends, is available when you’re offline, and it can even make PC use more enjoyable by revealing techniques which impress those around you.

Using Help requires just a little knowledge and practice, since it can’t — yet — read your mind and answer unasked questions. And you do need to know which rocks to look under for the information you need.

Help information in special files — usually installed with Windows or application programs — is accessed through built-in software. Fortunately, there’s a common look-and-feel across most programs’ Help material and interfaces.

The best way to learn Help is to experiment with your own favorite apps to see how they present their material. (And using Help is harmless — nobody need know you’re doing it and you can’t break anything!)

There are generally at least three ways to invoke Help: press the F1 key, click the word Help on the menu bar, and press Alt-H (hold the Alt key and press H).

Pressing F1 enters the Help system; the two other actions provide a short pull-down list of app-specific Help options (Users Guide, Reference Manual, About information, check for updates, link to vendor site, report bugs, etc.) which can be clicked.

Most Help systems provides tabs for specifying how to retrieve info; common tabs are Contents, to show main topics and subtopics; Search or Find, to explore Help information; and Index, to list all topics alphabetically. Sometimes equivalent choices are listed in the pull-down menu.

Some applications link to a Web site for Help — good news because it’s always current but bad news because it requires being online. Others, such as some Microsoft Office products — open a Help task pane within the application window. Microsoft Help sometimes includes an Answer Wizard, replacing searching, allowing entry of questions needing answers.

Some Help systems are task-oriented, requiring you to select or enter what you’re trying to do. That’s helpful when your need matches supplied tasks but it’s not as friendly for browsing or when you don’t describe a task in Microsoft’s terms. When that happens, don’t get discouraged. Simply rephrase your query or refer to the subject index.

Just as when you explore Web sites, navigating through Help leaves a trail. You can always click Back to revisit a previous display and then click Forward to retrace your path.

Two other helpful Windows facilities are often overlooked:

Dialog boxes — sometimes only displaying cryptic buttons and choices — often contain Help buttons. These can be especially helpful since they display contextual help, describing what the dialog box can do.

“What’s This?” — clicking the question mark found in the upper right-hand corner of many dialog boxes turns the cursor into a traveling question mark. Move it to a button or menu and click to display a brief explanation of the item you clicked.

Remember, just as Google is your online friend, answering most searching urges, Help can be a partner, giving clues to your computer’s mysterious personality.

Gabe Goldberg (, a lifelong computer pro and technology communicator, has written three books and hundreds of articles for audiences including techies, baby boomers and senior citizens. He enjoys sharing tips and pointers that help people use and have fun with technology.