Designing help for dynamic applications?

Subject: Designing help for dynamic applications?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, "'David Goldberg'" <david -dot- goldberg -at- jda -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 19 Sep 2000 08:28:46 -0400

David Goldberg wonders <<...what approaches others have used to design Help
systems for applications for users in group profiles that determine the sets
of menus, windows and window elements they can see.>>

For _reference_ information, the nature of the application shouldn't pose a
problem. So long as the help is context-sensitive, viewers will be able to
see the appropriate help for each individual function when they hit the Help
button in a dialog box. Ditto for window elements (e.g., icons) if you've
built "What's this?" help into the application. And if the menu names match
the names in the index to the help file (or the table of contents), then
it's easy for viewers to find the correct portion of the help file.

Using "build tags" or "conditional text" might work if the software wasn't
dynamic; the way you described things, it doesn't sound like you're trying
to create different help files for different clients, but rather trying to
figure out how to change the help files at run-time (which is when the user
discovers what functions they have access to). That makes things
considerably trickier, particularly if viewers should _not_ be allowed to
see help text for functions they aren't allowed to use. I'm not sure how
you'd do that, other than perhaps by using a separate help file for each
possible combination of functions or for each function (i.e., viewers would
open one help file for each function, with no links between files). I'm sure
there's a more elegant way to do this; I'm just not enough of a help wizard
to know what it is.

<<How do you construct accurate Help navigation instructions to an
application function if the flow is different for different sets of users?>>

I'm not sure I understand the question, so I'm making the simplifying
assumption that you mean users have different subsets of commands available,
rather than (say) the Save function moving from the File menu to the Tools
menu so that instructions on where to actually find the command change
between users. There are two likely options for how the flow could work. In
the first case, users can apply the functions in whatever order they want
without affecting the results in any way. (Ex.: Count your pennies. Now
count your quarters.) In that case, all you have to do is explain each
function individually, and if there's a logical or optimal sequence, explain
this sequence. In the second case, the order in which the functions occur
dramatically changes the results. (Ex.: Press the detonator. Now move to a
safe distance.) In this case, you need to understand the required sequences
(the dependencies) well enough that you can transfer this knowledge to your
audience. That determines the flow. If there are several possible flows,
then each one will have its own logic, and you can start by explaining the
different types of logic and which flow works best for each one.

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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