Someone once said that "Help is for the advanced users". (Don't remember the source now, but it's been with me for the last 15 years).
At first, this sounds like a contradiction. But if you think about it, it's true.
Novice users need an intuitive interface. If they are stuck, they will most likely play with it until they figure it out - or perhaps leave empty-handed.
Advanced users OTOH, they will use the help to solve advanced tasks.
When designing help, it is important to bear this in mind.
- Nobody needs a help that says "this is the close button and that is the open button".
- The advanced users who opens the help need a task oriented description on advanced topics.
- The (few) novice users who look at help also needs a task oriented "get started" description.
Help is an advanced topic, and many professionals advocate that the help systems should be considered to be a separate project and thus a project that need dedicated analysis, design and testing.
Answer to the question
Where do you draw the distinction between a "novice user" and an "advanced user"?
Rule no. 1: Know your user.
The user can actually be novice/intermediate/advanced in multiple dimensions.
- General computer knowledge
- The system
- The domain/profession
As a vendor you need to investigate and make a decision.
The investigation can be carried out in various ways: Questionnaires, interview, observation, user testing etc etc. In short: Conduct an user analysis. This user analysis usually results in some sort of documentation. Like personas and/or user specification.
Then you need to make a decision. If you want to success as a software vendor, you need to make decisions. Define the criteria for the various experience levels your product require. There are no golden rules that does this job for you. You must do a proper job yourself.
This can be a bit tricky, because it might not always be as it seems. For example, you might have an user who claim to "be online every day". It's easy to draw the conclusion that these users are experienced Internet users - but it can turn out to be someone who's son-in-law just added a solitaire shortcut to the desktop and this is all this user uses. He starts the shortcut and plays solitaire - every day. If you point him to another website, he wont get it.
My experience is that the actual experience level is lower that I've expected. But YMMV!