It never fails. Your deadline is looming and disaster strikes. Some weird error message pops up. Or you realize you don't know how to complete a critical step formula in Excel. Or maybe you just want to add a little polish to your Excel or Word document to impress the boss. Where do you go for help?

There is a vast array of on-line solutions available to you that can provide answers to MS Office questions quickly.

F1 - your best friend

Every professional application has extensive help documentation available, usually accessible by pressing the F1 key or clicking on the help menu. You can either browse the file to find your answer or type a phrase into the search window to get instant answers.

Help files are great for basic or even advanced functionality. However they focus on how the application works, not how it doesn't work, so are less useful when you have problems. They are also no help if you don't know the right phrase to search on; you can't find help on how to use a widget if the help file calls it a doodad.

Knowledge bases

Software manufacturers often have extensive knowledge bases at their web sites. These take the help file one step further, illustrating techniques beyond what on-line documentation does. They can also be excellent troubleshooting sources.

Copying and pasting an error message into a knowledge base can give specific help on your problem. But knowledge bases suffer from some of the same limitations as help files, most notably the "I don't know what to call it" syndrome.

Official support forums

Official support forums can be an important addition to a knowledge base, allowing users to ask a wider range of questions. They can get those questions answered by experts who are well versed in all aspects of the applications.

The problem is that most software companies don't offer support forums, since they require too much employee time to be effective. Those that do are often swamped by users, so it can seem hard to get anyone's attention.

User group support forums

The lack of official support forums has spawned the creation of many user groups with their own support forums. There may be expert users in the crowd who can provide insight on troubleshooting and techniques that would be hard to find in some dusty manual.

Then again, these people are under no obligation. There is no guarantee that a question will be answered quickly or at all. Nor is there any guarantee a given forum will actually have those "expert users" you need. Plus, some people on these forums are just jerks.

Training Centre User Support Forums

Some MS Office training centres fill that support gap with User Support Forums. Originally set up for customers of training courses, some like the one at Best Training are now open to everyone. Here, Microsoft Certified Trainers answer questions on Microsoft product, usually within just a few hours.

Training Centre User Support forums offer a nice balance of benefits. You can explore open ended topics without tedious browsing of help files or knowledge bases. Answers are customized and relevant to your unique situation, not just general instructions. You can also rely on professional demeanour and certified experts.