Unintended Costs of Design Decisions: An Anecdote

In the early days of computers, someone decided to make “help” one keystroke away at F1.  No doubt this was reasonably handy in the days when help immediately popped up a list of available commands, and could be dismissed by a similarly single keystroke.  But the convenience of F1-Help changed significantly, and not entirely for the better, when computer applications began responding to the keypress by popping up a separate window, moving the cursor focus, and loading who knows what all answers to the existential questions might be anticipated from their users.  The first attempts in this direction even froze the computer until the program had sufficiently marshaled all the “help” that might be required, although this was somewhat alleviated by the newer tendency to open “help” in a new thread, so that the user could continue working away until the application was ready to be helpful.

I have come to regret this early design decision, as every time I accidentally hit F1, it consumes several seconds to a minute of my time dealing with the inadvertently summoned new window.  In many applications, I cannot even close the new window with a keystroke, but need to move the mouse cursor, which is slower.  While it was once easy to avoid hitting F1, increased use of keyboard shortcuts in spreadsheet programs (where F2 moves the cursor to editing the current cell) and the laptop computers’ move of the function bar to just above the numeral keys (where they might be hit by stray fingers wishing to type numbers, or playing Sudoku) have greatly increased the frequency with which I have asked my computer for help.  Cumulatively, I may have wasted hours in dealing with unwanted responses to unintentional F1 keystrokes.  Like Clippy, not all advanced “help” features are helpful, especially when they drag processing and user concentration time.  So every time I suddenly realize that I have accidentally hit F1, I feel a moment of dread as what I have in my mind dissolves into the need to dismiss the coming “help.”  I have even fantasized about disabling the “help” feature entirely, although I invariably realize that there are important, if occasional, uses for that feature.  So I have reluctantly resigned myself to wasting time due to sluggish software responses to my unintentional keystrokes.

All of this effort, time, and dread could have been saved if “help” were summoned only by a two-key shortcut, such as Ctrl+F1, which I never hit accidentally or otherwise.


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