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Back when I first learned Windows GUI programming, it seemed very common to right-align the Help menu in applications.

It seems this is no longer the norm in all of the Windows applications I regularly use. However, the Windows UX guidelines don't mention this fact, and I still see some developers following this convention.

  1. Is there still some UX benefit to this approach?
  2. Is there any definitive evidence (aside from taking examples from existing programs) that this is no longer (or was ever) an accepted convention?

Minor update:

From http://support.microsoft.com/kb/216189:

The use of a right-justified Help menu in an application is not the recommended style for creating Windows applications

though I would not consider this KB article to be Microsoft's definitive stance on the subject, considering the next line is

This article provides this information without recommending its use.

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2  
So, doesn't the article you linked to answer your question to some extent? –  cdeszaq Mar 13 '12 at 17:11
3  
No, I would not consider a side comment on an obscure KB article to be a definitive answer. –  Kevin McCormick Mar 13 '12 at 17:22

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

First of all, the KB article you cited is rather old. It's dated July 13, 2004. There have been 2 major Windows OS releases since then and one more has entered a public beta.

Secondly, it sounds like you have misunderstood the note in the KB article.

The use of a right-justified Help menu in an application is not the recommended style for creating Windows applications. This article provides this information without recommending its use.

It means that although such a UI design (right-aligned Help menu) isn't recommended, this is the tutorial on how to create it.

As for the current guidelines on designing entry points to Help system in Windows applications, the current "Windows User Experience Interaction Guidelines" are quite clear:

  • Use a Help button with the Help icon for the hub pages of control panel items. Place it in the upper-right corner. These buttons don't have a label, but have a tooltip that reads Help.
  • F1 Help is optional. Users have grown accustomed to finding Help information related to the immediate context of the UI on the screen by pressing the F1 key, which is labeled Help on standard keyboards. You can include F1 Help if, for example, usability studies show that your users expect to find it, or your program UI is complex enough to benefit from contextual assistance.
  • Programs with menu bars can have a Help menu category. For Help menu guidelines, see Menus.

These mean that the only Help button (not menu) can be placed in the upper-right corner, as we can observe in nearly any modern Microsoft application. Moreover, the Menu Guidelines don't have anything specific for Help menu except for the permission to have dedicated help items in multiple menu categories.

Now, a little bit of a historic overview.

I was able to find screenshots of old versions of Microsoft Word. In them, we can see that Microsoft indeed used to align Help menu to the right. However, the last time that happened was in 1991. I wish UI guidelines from those days were available to find out the thinking behind them, so instead simply enjoy the pictures. =)

Word for Windows 1.0 (1989)
Word for Windows 1.0 (1989)

Word for Dos 5.5 (1991)
Word for Dos 5.5 (1991)

Microsoft Word 6.0 (1994)
Microsoft Word 6.0 (1994)

Microsoft Word 2007
Microsoft Word 2007

However, this atavism has survived to the "modern times" in some software. For example, Norton Commander for Windows 2 had the right-aligned help menu despite being released in 1999:
Norton Commander 2 for Windows

and Total Commander still has it even today:
Total Commander

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2  
Wow, that's a comprehensive and well researched answer! +1. Looks like MS policy is to have a help option of some sort in the top-right, replacing the old underlined menu item. (Still, this 'help' option is in the same place, regardless of whether it's officially a menu, link or icon. The user doesn't care what happens when it's selected, only that it's called 'Help' and they select it to get help). By providing the UX guide online they're suggesting others can follow if desired. –  JonW Mar 14 '12 at 17:14
    
Brilliant research! You are indeed correct, the KB article I cited is very obscure, hence why I am asking the question. I suppose this is conclusive evidence that at one time even MS felt this was a good idea. Given Microsoft's current guidelines, I can accept the assumption that since they provide no specific recommendation on the alignment of the Help menu, that they would not approve of this convention, given their other recommendation, "Can you get rid of unneeded concepts?". –  Kevin McCormick Mar 14 '12 at 17:22
    
@Jon W: You are totally right, but you seem to be ignoring the question. The question is specific about a menu. And for a menu the answer is simple: no. (btw, I don't consider Total commander as an example of good UI). –  Bart Gijssens Mar 15 '12 at 9:00
    
@BartGijssens I'm not ignoring the question, I'm just thinking as a user. They don't care if the item in the top-right is an icon, a toolbar, a menu, a link... They only care that 'this area of the screen is where I get help'. You're right, it's not actually a 'menu' but it is still an area of the screen where the help function is activated in some way. –  JonW Mar 15 '12 at 9:10
    
@Jon W: That's exactly where I don't agree with you. User's don't expect the classic menu being broken up any more. If an application is using a classic menu they look for it as the last menu entry on the left. I don't have any proof of this tough, but it's what I believe. –  Bart Gijssens Mar 15 '12 at 9:58

One possible drawback to putting the help menu on the right is that a user with poor motor control (at least on Windows) could easily "overshoot" the menu and inadvertently exit the application.

While I have no research to prove it, I suspect there's a strong correlation between users who rely on online help and those who haven't yet mastered the mouse.

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3  
Actually, the help menu on the right is from a time that there was no close button on the right (Windows 3.11). There was just maximize and minimize. To close a window you had to go to the left side of the title bar. With the transition to 95 the close button moved to the right so this might indeed have been an extra argument not to put the help menu there. –  Bart Gijssens Mar 14 '12 at 16:04

I am assuming the question is not about putting the Help menu as the last menu entry. I assume the question is about Right-aligning the help menu, like this:

enter image description here

(this is a manipulated screenshot)

My answer is strictly based on this assumption and the assumption that the question is about a classic menu, not a ribbon-styled application.

No, this is not acceptable, and certainly not preferable.

If I'm correct the right-aligned help menu is a heritage from the Borland Windows Custom Controls library (BWCC) era. They had a UI design deviating form the standard Windows UI for their controls and putting the help menu on the right (where nobody would see it) was one of their conventions. Some developers not using the BWCC library also right-aligned their Help menu.

With the death of BWCC we rapidly got rid of that convention.

A similar thing happened with using "?" instead of "Help" in the menu. Nobody is using it any more, which is good because it increases consistency.

But let's sum up the PRO's and CON's of putting the Help menu on the right:

CON:

  • harder to find

  • nobody is doing it any more

PRO:

  • ?
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This is a very subjective answer. It just sounds like it is a convention that you, personally, do not like. why is it not acceptable or preferable anymore? –  JonW Mar 14 '12 at 10:44
    
Because it is harder to find (separated from the other menu entries), and nobody is doing it any more (consistency). –  Bart Gijssens Mar 14 '12 at 10:52
    
btw, I'm not sure if this is clear: the question is not about putting the Help menu on the right of all other menus. The question is about right-aligning the help menu, thus separating the help menu from the other menus (screenshot added). –  Bart Gijssens Mar 14 '12 at 10:56
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Thanks for the very thorough answer and yes this is more to the point of my original question. The history is interesting and after doing some more searching, I can't find any MS software in recent or past history that actually right-aligns the Help menu. So it must have been external forces that encouraged the convention. –  Kevin McCormick Mar 14 '12 at 14:42
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An additional comment, and perhaps a thought to ponder, is why in the UX guidelines, they do recommend a help button in the upper-right corner. My guess is that they want it to be clear that "Help" is not necessarily a program function like all other menu items/ribbon items, just a hyperlink that takes you to a help file (and not the junk it has become, with About boxes, links to update, etc... just take a look at Eclipse for Help file cruft). –  Kevin McCormick Mar 14 '12 at 14:51

Designing UI so that Help is unnecessary

Microsoft make a definite statement that you should not use "help", if it can be avoided.

More discoverable entry points to Help from the primary UI (especially new Help links from UI surfaces such as dialog boxes, error messages, and wizards). Help links take you directly to the pertinent topic in Help.

But if you realy need help content, use it where you would most probably need it, not in a section of its own (like a right aligned menu item).

Reference: Microsoft Guidelines > Windows environment > Help

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That is an incorrect conclusion imo. MS states that Help is a standard menu: msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windows/desktop/… –  Bart Gijssens Mar 14 '12 at 7:00

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