Re: configurable help systems/documentation

Subject: Re: configurable help systems/documentation
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "McIntosh, Cathleen" <Cathleen -dot- McIntosh -at- vistacpg -dot- com>, "TechDoc List" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 13 Mar 2000 19:58:26 -0500

So far as I know, there isn't any standard help system that's configurable
in real-time, locking away topics or pages that the user isn't supposed to
see. I can imagine several ways that it could be implemented, but nothing
off-the-shelf suggests itself.

Likewise, I know of no standard help that interrogates a database in
real-time. Again, I'm sure a good VB programmer could whomp up an ActiveX
control to do it, but that's pretty intensive.

Help systems have in common that they're essentially readers of files. Old
WinHelp was monumentally configurable, but in the real world few people
bothered to write .dlls to enhance it much.

Instead of trying to find a help system, you may have to switch perspectives
and have your friendly programmers write or steal (er, I mean borrow) code
to process and display XML according to built-in XSLT sheets. It could be
done in Java pretty easily. That way, your output from Frame will be XML,
which means it's minus formatting but nothing else. That goes into a simple
database. You then specify in your special little help reader what
information will have to make up all the desired or permissible topics.
That, too, can be automated. Then, when the user pops open the help app and
asks for help with, say, printing, the app assembles the topic literally on
the fly, from the database, and displays it. You can use a browser for a
display if you want to shortcut the display development. And the user will
never know that his topic didn't exist until that moment.

This isn't a really advanced thing anymore. Microsoft has used XML for its
channels for quite some time now. The channel information is assembled like
ASP pages, in real-time. As a bonus, your app is already a database front
end, so it could incorporate simple SQL code to interrogate other databases.
Theoretically, your help file could become nothing more than the nexus of
networked information from around the world, information that isn't put into
human-readable form until it's requested.

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar Method(TM)
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info

> Challenge: Now I need to figure out a way to build a help system that uses
> one set of files but that can be configured so that certain files can be
> turned on or off, depending on whether a customer needs the files. In this
> way, each customer would receive the same exact files, but we would be
> to control/configure which areas of the help system can be accessed. This
> might be database driven, file driven, or other.

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