Learn More about Windows Programs and Get Help Using Windows Help

I don’t think there’s anyone who’s never needed help with Windows. Since the DOS days, Microsoft has included Help in all its software. Luckily for us, the Help included in Windows 7 seems to be more versatile than ever. Let’s discover how it works, how to make it even better and use it to get information on how to work with Windows programs or to get help in solving problems.

Getting started with the Windows Help

There are several ways to bring up the Windows Help. You can find it in the sidebar, on the Start Menu.

Windows Help

If you don’t have it there, you can configure the Start Menu to enable the shortcut.

Also, you can press the F1 key when you’ve got a program running. Pressing it does nothing if you’re just looking at your desktop and not a specific program, but pressing the Windows key plus F1 will do the trick.

Windows Help

Windows programs have a Help option, displayed on the right side of the menu bar. Sometimes you’ll see the word Help, and sometimes you’ll see the question mark in the blue circle.

Windows Help

NOTE: Many programs have their own built-in Help system, so that is what you’ll see when you ask for help. We’ll just talk about what’s built into Windows and Microsoft software in this tutorial. And if you are using older software that had its own Help based on the old-style Windows .hlp files, you won’t be able to use those because Windows 7 doesn’t have a built-in way to read them. If you absolutely must have those files, there’s an article in the Microsoft Knowledge Base that explains what to do, here: I cannot open Help that was created in the Windows Help format (WinHlp32.exe).

What you’ll see when you ask for Help, depends on what you’re doing. The Windows Help is context sensitive—it knows what program you’re using, and it brings up help for that program. In many cases, it sees where your cursor is or what area of the program you’re working with, and offers you help based on what you’re doing.

This is what you’ll see when you click the Help and Support shortcut. The interface is as simplified as possible. The toolbar at the top has back and forward buttons, a Home button, a Print button, a Browse Help button, an Ask button that will take you to other resources, and an Options drop-down menu that offers a short list of choices.

Windows Help

The Help Settings

Let’s start by setting up the options. Click on Options, and then click on Settings. You’ll find two options related to your search results: "Improve my search results by using online help (recommended)" and "Join the Help Experience Program". Both are selected by default.

Windows Help

Using online help is recommended for a very good reason. Microsoft’s Help has never provided really extensive details, although Windows 7’s version of Help is a major improvement over what used to be. The purpose of Help was to give people a quick look at the instructions, not provide them with a big treatise on fixing the problem. Unfortunately, even with Windows 7’s improved help files, sometimes what they tell you is just simply not enough. If you allow the use of online help, you can be taken to web sites that give you a much more detailed explanation, and this also updates your Windows Help files dynamically with the latest information from the Microsoft Help websites. I must admit I didn’t have much use for Windows Help in previous Windows versions, because it was so frustrating to try to find just the right search term and then get an abbreviated answer out of a help file that might or might not have anything to do with what I wanted to look up. Being able to go direct to a good web site when necessary is both helpful and satisfying.

Whether you want to join the "online help experience" is entirely up to you. Microsoft wants to know what people need help with, but they do not collect any personal data other than what you looked for. If you’d like them to use that data to improve their programs and their help, leave this box checked. If not, uncheck it and click OK. You can also click on the link to read Microsoft’s official privacy policy if you’re not sure what you want to do with this one. Your choices on this option will not affect Help in any way.

Getting Answers to Your Questions

The Help and Support window has a search box at the top, that works like the search box on the Start Menu. Start typing in what you want to ask about, and press Enter. Help and Support will show you a list of possible links to the information you need. Here I have typed Word 2003 into the search box. I was very amused to find "Update Microsoft Office" on the list.

Windows Help

If there are more than 30 results, Help shows you 30 at a time.

Browsing the Help index

The Home and Print buttons are self-explanatory, so let’s move on to the Browse Help button. Click on this, and you’ll find what amounts to a Table of Contents for Help. Click on any of those topics and you’ll be given links to more information. You can navigate using the Forward and Back buttons just as you would through any other Windows program.

Windows Help

Let’s try the Getting Started link. Click on that, and this is what you’ll see.

Windows Help

Then click on Starting Up Windows. As you can see, there are four links. Click on any one of those to get to the next level of help. Here you’ll find more links to instructions and frequently asked questions.

Windows Help

Let’s try clicking on "Starting Up Windows: Recommended Links". Here you’ll find help with common problems starting Windows, and some not so common ones like booting up with multiple operating systems. At the bottom of the page are buttons to click to tell Windows Help whether what you’ve seen was helpful or not. If you click No, you’ll be asked why it wasn’t helpful and you get a chance to tell Microsoft why it wasn’t. This is strictly optional, and won’t affect Windows Help if you don’t want to do it.

Windows Help

More Options for Getting Help

At the very bottom of the window is a link to More Support Options. Here you have a chance to connect to someone else, to ask questions in the Windows 7 support forums, or to go to the Windows web site or TechNet web site to get more information.

Windows Help

NOTE: This is the same thing as clicking Ask on the main menu bar, so the following applies to that option as well.

We have already covered getting help from other people in our article on Windows Remote Assistance, which you can find here: How to Provide Remote Support with Windows Remote Assistance.

Let’s explore asking for help in the Microsoft Answers web site. Here is where you choose it.

Windows Help

And here is the web site.

Windows Help

Returning to the Help and Support window, under Contact Technical Support you’ll see options to connect to your computer’s manufacturer and to talk with Microsoft Customer Support.

Windows Help

Choosing Microsoft Customer Support takes you directly to the Knowledge Base, which has an extensive list of suggestions.

Windows Help

You can also connect directly with someone at Microsoft by email, online, or by phone. Click on "Contact a support professional by E-mail, Online or Phone" above the green word-bubble on the right side of the screen.

Windows Help

First you’ll be taken to a page where you verify your location, and then to a page with an extensive list of ways to get in touch with Microsoft directly.

More Online Resources

Under Other Resources, in the lower half of the Help and Support window, you’ll find a link to the main Microsoft Windows web site.

Windows Help

You’ll have to re-type your search term there, but the good news is that the search function on the Microsoft site works really fast. And, since it’s Microsoft, there’s the added bonus that it can detect which version of their software you’re using, so you don’t have to tell it you’re using Windows 7. The bad news is that there is no way to sort by date, or relevance, or anything else that might get you closer to the answer you need. In this case, clicking Search all of Microsoft.com in the right side bar was what actually worked the best. I’d call this a serious design flaw in the site. You should be able to filter the results and you should be able to get the right subject the first time around.

Here is the Microsoft web site after I searched for Word 2003.

Windows Help

And here is what appeared after I clicked on Search all of Microsoft.com. BIG difference. It does offer an Advanced Search option, but that only lets you select a different language or a different part of Microsoft.com to search.
Of course, Microsoft’s Bing search engine has similar limitations, and the people who programmed it ought to be taking a look at what Google offers in the way of results filters.

Windows Help

Help yourself

The Help feature in Windows 7 has come a long way from the days of short and un-helpful .hlp files. Being able to add content to it and go direct to web sources is a huge improvement. The more you use Help in Windows 7, the better it works. Take some time to play around with it and (except for the shortcomings of the Microsoft sites) I’m sure you’ll find it gives you exactly what you need.

Related articles:

6 Ways to Learn the Exact Version of Any Application You are Using
How to Provide Remote Support with Windows Remote Assistance
Connecting Remotely to a Windows Desktop from Windows 7