The Consequences of Embedded On-Line Help

Subject: The Consequences of Embedded On-Line Help
From: Dan Emory <danemory -at- primenet -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2000 13:59:17 -0800

The trend toward embedding on-line help in the software it is
documenting may have some interesting consequences, particularly
when the help is loaded as an integral part of the software installation,
and separate and more complete printed documentation

is not provided. The coupling of the help documentation to the software
is even tighter when "Wizards" provide the principal means
of accessing the help information.

In such systems, users can legitimately claim that errors and
omissions in the help are indistinguishable from software bugs,
or software features that do not perform as advertised. Arguably,
the typical method of classifying software bugs according to
their seriousness should also be applied to the help.

In fact, the furor over the the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County,
Florida is a perfect example of this. The only connection
of the voter with the vote tabulation system is the ballot, which,
together with any additional instructions at the polling place,
constitutes the help. The foul-up caused by the defective ballot
design and the failure to provide adequate instructions at
the polling places has been equated to a failure of the
vote tabulation system itself, and the extreme remedy of a
re-vote is being demanded.

One might expect that case law regarding product liability,
product acceptability, warranty, and related issues
will soon begin to reflect the theory that the help is an
integral part of the software, and defects in the help
should be treated identically to defects in the software
product itself.

As was the case in Palm Beach, case law may
conclude that a only a small percentage of users
who make mistakes caused by by the help deficiencies
is sufficient to trigger a decision requiring remedial action
by the software vendor, particularly when the product
performs mission-critical functions within an enterprise, and/or
more comprehensive printed documentation is not
available as back-up.

Help systems that consist mainly of pages
showing a screenshot of each dialog box,
accompanied by inane and useless text restating the
obvious, as though that were the sum total
of information needed by the user, would be
particularly vulnerable. A team made up of plaintiff's
attorneys and a few of plaintiff's power users
could develop and put on a devastating live demonstration
in a courtroom of the inadequacies of such inane help
systems. Any attempt by defendant's attorneys to
rebut such a demonstration would be a defense
of the indefensible, bringing down even more
ridicule on the defendant.

Case closed.

| Nullius in Verba |
Dan Emory, Dan Emory & Associates
FrameMaker/FrameMaker+SGML Document Design & Database Publishing
Voice/Fax: 949-722-8971 E-Mail: danemory -at- primenet -dot- com
10044 Adams Ave. #208, Huntington Beach, CA 92646
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