Benjamin Sago / ogham / cairnrefinery / etc…

I Miss Balloon Help

The other day, I decided to take a trip down Nostalgia Lane and re-visit Mac OS System 7, the operating system on the computers I grew up using.

It was funny to see some of the old design decisions in use again. The first one that got me was that you need to hold down the mouse button to keep a menu open; clicking isn’t enough. Or the way the Apple Menu has applications in it, rather than system commands. Or the way that folders’ icons get greyed out when they’re open, or the old spatial Finder, or the Zoom button on the right, or how you can only resize windows from the bottom-right corner instead of from any side.

But there was one more feature that I decided I sorely miss, despite not having thought about it for a couple decades: Balloon Help.

In this post, I use pixelated screenshots which look authentic on some screens but horrible on others.
If they look horrible for you, set the images to “smooth” below. (You may not see a difference at all)

Image setting:

What is Balloon Help?

If you go to the Help menu at the right-hand side of the menu bar, you’ll see an option: Show Balloons. Do this, and wherever you hover the mouse cursor over anything, you’ll see a brief explanation appear:

Screenshot with a balloon over the Control Panels item in the Apple Menu. “Opens the Control Panels folder. Control Panels are files you can use to customize various parts of your Macintosh. Listed here because an alias for the Control Panels folder is in the Apple Menu Items folder.”

Menu bar items tell you what they do when clicked on.

Screenshot with a balloon over the icon for StuffIt Expander. “StuffIt Expander. This application expands compressed archives. To expand a file, drag it over this icon until highlighted and release the mouse button. Holding down the option key until a dialog box appears allows you to specify ‘one-time’ preferences.”

Application icons provide a short description of what the application does, who made it, and how to use it.

Screenshot with a balloon over the Zoom box in the upper-right corner of a window. “Zoom box. To change the size of the window quickly, click here. Clicking once sizes the window so that all of its contents are visible (if possible). Clicking again returns the window to its original size.”

User interface elements come with a short piece of text explaining their function.

Screenshot with a balloon over the System Folder in the Finder. “System Folder. The System Folder contains files and programs that your Macintosh needs to operate.”

Even the System Folder has its own tagline.

Even if these UI elements are now commonplace after we’ve been using them for years and years — title bars, scroll bars, and close buttons — they would have been new to everybody at some point. And what better way to learn, than if you could get help with anything, just by pointing at it?

Which is why, if you’re seeing this feature while playing around in the emulator, I bet you’d have the same reaction as I did 25 years ago: playing around with it for a few minutes and then switching it off. As though it was a tool for newbies, and once you’ve learnt how it all works, you don’t need it anymore.

And, well, this is true. While the balloons weren’t huge, they did take up room on the screen and get very annoying very quickly — and those machines had tiny screens relative to the ones we have now.

Under the surface, however, Balloon Help is far more important a feature than it initially lets on, because it allows you to ask the question: Why isn’t the computer letting me do what I want to do?

The greatest aspect of Balloon Help is that explained the why, not just the what. If part of the system was different from normal, such as an icon being different, or a button or menu being greyed out, the system would offer an explanation. Here are some more examples:

Screenshot with a balloon over the bulging Trash icon on the desktop. “Trash. To discard an item or eject a disk, drag it to the Trash. To get an item back, open the Trash icon and drag the item out of the Trash window. The Trash is bulging because there is something in it.”

When an icon looks different from normal, you can find out why.

Screenshot with a balloon over the ‘Special → Eject Disk’ menu item in the Finder. “Ejects the selected disk, leaving its dimmed icon on the desktop. Not available because no ejectable disk is selected.”

When a menu bar item is disabled, you get an explanation.

Screenshot with a balloon over the ‘Desktop’ button in a Save dialog. “To see a list of the items on your desktop, click this button. The button is not available because items on the desktop are already listed in the window.”

When a button is disabled, again, it tells you why.

Screenshot with a balloon over the ‘File → New’ menu item in TeachText. “Opens a new TeachText document called ‘Untitled’. Not available because a TeachText document is already open. (TeachText can only open one document at a time.)”

If an application is limited, it has to provide you with an explanation.

If a button is disabled, the computer told you why it is so; it didn’t just disable the button hoping you figure it out yourself. It’s the same with menu items: if you couldn’t select something from a menu, it would explain why.

Having full Balloon Help support meant admitting to the user that the computer is not perfect. That this machine, which you’ve probably had to spend a lot of money on, isn’t actually capable of bending to your every whim. And when you do hit the limits, you can trust the computer to tell you that.

My favourite example is the one where the TeachText application outright admits one of its limitations:

TeachText can only open one document at a time.

The Macintosh Plus only had 1 MB of RAM, but that’s still not the user’s fault, is it? They were trying to do something completely reasonable — open two documents at once — and the computer has to let them down.

It feels refreshing to just see a computer admit something like that, without throwing obscure error messages in your face. Even though the machine couldn’t do what you told it to do, it was still on your side — because the alternative is just to sit there and do nothing, which looks exactly like the computer has broken.

Can we really say that this is still the case?

The Era of Helpful Computers

If you keep on using Balloon Help, you’ll quickly discover that very few applications actively supported it, even in 1991. Sure, the Finder and many of the built-in system utilities had full support, but even the other applications included in the Internet Archive’s OS image do nothing when you hover over their controls. It’s always less work to do nothing than to do something, and with few applications supporting it, people didn’t expect it to be there, so support for it languished further. It was finally removed entirely in Mac OS X.

And I think that’s a real shame.

Relatively often, I see menu bar items that are disabled, or buttons that I’m not allowed to click. The other day, I discovered that Outlook won’t let me display the weather for some reason:

A screenshot of the Outlook settings window; specifically, the “Show current weather on calendar” setting, which is dimmed with no explanation.

The engineer behind this feature probably knows exactly why this isn’t happening: your company policy has disabled the thingy! But it’s not obvious to me, the user. It both looks, and feels, broken. It’s also not obvious why I couldn’t delete or rename this task list in Reminders:

A screenshot of the Apple Reminders program. I’m viewing the context menu of a reminders list called Tasks; the entries, such as ‘Rename’ and ‘Delete’, are all mysteriously greyed out.

Or why I couldn’t quit Safari the other day:

A screenshot of the Apple Safari menu bar. ‘Quit Safari’ is mysteriously greyed out.

Again, there’s probably some technical reason behind this. Maybe the list called “Tasks” is special somehow, or Safari was busy doing something. I don’t know. I do know that Chess is considered part of the operating system, and can’t be deleted, but the OS itself doesn’t want to tell me that:

A screenshot of the Apple Finder menu bar, with the Chess application selected in a window. ‘Delete’ and ‘Rename’ are mysteriously greyed out.

Software companies have taken advantage of this lack of expectation, and now computers have taken on authorities of their own. And now it’s gone, we can’t get it back. The computer no longer wants to tell you what it is doing.

I’m willing to bet that a million people have tried dragging music files from their iPods or their iPhones to their computers. iTunes (now Music) doesn’t let you do that. If you try, it won’t let you. There’s no explanation or piece of text that explains why you can’t do that; it just doesn’t let you.

Are you being stopped to help prevent piracy? Or is it trying to push you towards the iTunes Music store? Or could they just not get the feature working, so they left it like that?

Part of me thinks, if the developers behind these features had to literally explain them using simple English, they’d see how unfriendly the work they’re doing is. “Your company policy has disabled showing the weather” would go a long way, but “We’re intentionally disallowing dragging music to your computer so you use the iTunes store instead” would go further.

There’s precedent for this in programming. If you’ve got some code that doesn’t work under a set of circumstances, it’s tempting to just leave it in there as a bug — unless you have to document that bug:

Ritchie adds: “Our habit of trying to document bugs and limitations visibly was enormously useful to the system. As we put out each edition, the presence of these sections shamed us into fixing innumerable things rather than exhibiting them in public. I remember clearly adding or editing many of these sections, then saying to myself “I can’t write this”, and fixing the code instead.”

UNIX Evolution: 1975-1984, Part I (Section 2)

This is why I miss Balloon Help — I miss the era of computing it came from.

Screenshot with a balloon over the ‘Hide Balloons’ item in the Help menu. “Turns Balloon Help off.”