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It is a very simple question, but it has been bothering me for quite some time: when creating an application, should the help menu (in the menu bar) be called "?" or "Help"?

I can see a few advantages for "?": it leaves some room to associate the character "H" to another menu (with Alt) and is quite easy to recognize. But I think there may be some other pros and cons in this choice.

What do you think?

menu bar

NOTE: Some of the answers discuss about internationalization and shortcuts, thus about how ? may not exist in some languages. Since I am French, I will use that language as an example (sorry if you prefere your examples in Chinese). For the same reason, feel free to edit any mistake you find in my English.

  • Alt+H works in English is also what we could have wanted for "History".
  • Alt+A may work in French but we often see it for "Affichage" instead.
  • The "Help" shortcut often has priority any other other menu that begins with the same letter. That means that the other menus shortcuts may change from one language to another even though the words are roughly the same (for example, "Historique" will be Alt+H in French while "History" will be Alt+i in English).
  • Moreover, the locale half of the software I use is in English and the other half is in French, which may lead to some problems when I switch - more often than one would think -. When software uses ?, I don't really have to think about the language anymore.

However, as said, Alt shortcuts are often secondary and thus these points do not invalidate what was already said in the answers.

NOTE 2: For the sake of completeness, we could also add the answer we simply don't care since it is a "positional" menu (always the last in the menu bar) and, generally speaking, users will know where to find it without even having to ask.

NOTE 3: One last point which not appear in the answers but appeared in some comments, and I think it is interesting to have it highlighted here. Alt+Shift+/ may be quite long to type, but one generally does not care since the key F1 should be a shorcut to open the hemp (even though it sometimes opens the "About" dialog).

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It depends on too many things: - the screen real-estate you have available - the location where you put this label - the language of your target audience - ... Please provide a more concrete example. –  Vincent van Scherpenseel Apr 11 '13 at 7:26
    
Sorry about that, I just thought of menus in the menu bar. I added "menu bar" in my question as well as an image :) –  Morwenn Apr 11 '13 at 7:36
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To trigger the Help function in the above example with a keyboard I need to press alt+shift+/ (as / has ? as it's shift key). Whereas for menus with 'Help' as an option I need only press alt and H. That's a 33% efficiency saving! –  JonW Apr 11 '13 at 8:57
    
pretty sure this would go against most platforms usability guidelines, fairly sure it breaks the windows one –  jk. Apr 11 '13 at 10:29
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The shortcut for help is, and should always be F1. –  zzzzBov Apr 11 '13 at 16:23
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7 Answers

up vote 24 down vote accepted

A question mark ? doesn't represent 'help'. It represents a question in general, or a question about more information on a specific point. Some apps and websites have used it for contextual help as it is cleaner for that.

If you want a menu option for a help menu, call it "help". This has become so entrenched that the name for it is a "help menu". Alternatively, if it's a set of frequently asked questions, call it 'FAQ'.

Additionally, a ? would not hold in many languages, so you would have to come up with a different symbol when internationalising your app. Finding the common name for a 'help' menu would be a lot easier in other languages.

However, if you really need a symbol for the help menu, I would use a lifebuoy icon, which more globally represents help.

enter image description here enter image description here

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I'm not convinced a lifebouy icon does globally represent help. I agree with the rest of your answer though. 'help' itself isn't a question it's a trigger for an action (just as choosing 'file' means the user 'wants to file something'). –  JonW Apr 11 '13 at 11:18
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@JonW I don't think any icon globally represents help, I just think that a lifebuoy more globally represents help than any other icon. My preference is to use the word "help". –  JohnGB Apr 11 '13 at 11:26
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Good answer, "?" is not help. Help is help. "Don't make me think" –  Samuel M Apr 11 '13 at 12:05
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Could you provide some examples as to where the lifebouy is used for help? I don't think I have ever come across it myself. –  AverageMarcus Apr 11 '13 at 13:59
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@Morwenn What would you use for ? in languages that don't use a ? or don't represent a question with punctuation? –  JohnGB Apr 11 '13 at 14:39
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If it's the help menu, please just call it that way:

  • It makes it easier to find
  • I don't have to think about it "oh, they probably put the help menu under ?"
  • and it's a larger target for me to click on.

Alt- keyboard combinations should be secondary to having an easily understandable name for the menu option. I don't believe they're that important anymore to most users (they'll be clicking anyway, which re-inforces my third point) and they've always had that problem of a letter already being taken. You should have them, but you shouldn't use ? for the help menu just to free up the Alt-H combination. Also, Alt-H should probably be help (at least, English Windows and Internet Explorer have the help menu under Alt-H): it's important to match the expectations of power users when it comes to keyboard combinations. Anyone who has ever used Textpad on Windows, or uses both Illustrator and Inkscape, will probably know how annoying mismatches can be. The only way those combinations are discoverable is if they match other products that someone might use.

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And it is easier to say. –  JOG Apr 11 '13 at 8:59
    
I would disagree about keyboard shortcuts not being important. Between Adobe and Eclipse IDE I use tons of shortcuts, most of the time without realizing it. That being said, use of keyboard shortcuts is usually a sign of an advanced user and typically they won't be accessing the help menu often enough to be worried about how that particular shortcut will affect them. –  Chris Apr 11 '13 at 10:30
    
@Chris, you're totally right and I agree. I think my point isn't clear and will edit my answer. –  Koen Lageveen Apr 11 '13 at 10:34
    
Well, I added a note in my original question about shortcuts and internationalization :) –  Morwenn Apr 11 '13 at 11:31
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The traditional key for help is F1, so it is independend from language constraints. –  nibra Apr 11 '13 at 15:24
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In general, a question mark ? represents a question and not help. However, in a Windows environment, which is the case here, the question mark actually represents help. The following screenshot is taken from SharePoint 2010 where the hovering the question mark picks up the tool tip : Help (new window).

enter image description here

Or using Command Prompt adding a question mark after a command:

enter image description here

So if you were to implement a help menu in a Windows environment - you can most definitely use a question mark, but to make it even more clear - let it be accompanied by the text Help as well.

? Help

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Even the command line option for windows tools is /? actually. –  Morwenn Apr 11 '13 at 9:03
    
@Morwenn That's true. I gave it a try and got the following in return using Windows PowerShell ISE: cmdlet Where-Object at command pipeline position 1. Supply values for the following parameters: Property: | –  Benny Skogberg Apr 11 '13 at 9:11
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the ? in powershell is not help. Old commands can be called with /?, for example ping /? but ? is asking for input from you, not providing help. Powershell help is requested with get-help –  Austin French Apr 11 '13 at 19:44
    
@AthomSfere That's right. The question mark in powershell is shorthand for where-object, which is not the same as help. I'll edit - thanks for the heads up! –  Benny Skogberg Apr 12 '13 at 6:35
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Since this appears to be a question about desktop applications, the answer is simple: call it what the appropriate style guide (whether for Windows or OS X) tells you it should be called. (Which, in both those cases, is "Help", or the localised equivalent.)

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Haha, even though the links are great, you can notice than the help menu bar in Windows explorer.exe is called ?. I don't know what Microsoft is doing there... –  Morwenn Apr 11 '13 at 19:23
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Probably just another example of "you should do what we say, not what we do" :) –  scottishwildcat Apr 12 '13 at 8:51
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Defintely "Help" - being as straightforward as possible will get most clicks on the help. The question mark leaves some room for ambiguity and won't necessarily be clear to all users.

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It's simple. Be consistent. A menu contains words. There is no resason to deviate from that.

You either use a menu bar, like this:

enter image description here

Or you use a toolbar, like this:

enter image description here

Don't create a mix.

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I personnaly prefer "HELP".

ONe of the main reason is the french keyboard: if you want to press ?, you have to shift. So, if the help menu is accessible through "?", I have to press to many keys (Alt + Shift + ?)...

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Press F1, it is the standard for help. –  Morwenn Apr 12 '13 at 8:42
    
F1 generally launch the HELP itself, not the other elements of the HELP menu, like about, buy a licence (if shareware), etc... –  Nek Apr 13 '13 at 14:41
    
Well, I think the rational behind that is that the other options in the help menu are not used that often. Otherwise, they would probably have a faster shortcut than the Alt one. –  Morwenn Apr 13 '13 at 14:43
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