Re: Providing fully customizable online Help? (Take II)

Subject: Re: Providing fully customizable online Help? (Take II)
From: Robert_Johnson -at- percussion -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 18 Sep 2002 14:50:56 -0400

Even if the software is not more elementary than you assumed, simply
providing documentation for the specific control may not necessarily be
useful. Our interface consists largely of a series of simple text boxes,
with a dozen or so additional controls, such as checkboxes and drop lists.
All that control-specific documentation could add in that situation is
"This is a text box. Enter some characters." You can't even be specific
about how many characters, because the text boxes (and the fields they
represent) differ in size depending on the data the implementer expects the
user to enter.

More fundamentally, control-specific documentation does nothing to help the
user understand the interface as a whole, much less how to use the
interface. The user needs to know what data to enter in a field, and why,
if they are going to use it effectively. Control-specific documentation is
not going to provide this level of support. If the interface consists of
four different text boxes, each with a different label, just telling the
user that each one is a text box that stores some characters is not going
to contribute much value to the product. Helping the user understand the
interface and how to use it does add value.

That's certainly what I would like to achieve with our documentation.
Unfortunately, it probably means relying on the implementers in the field
creating these interfaces to provide that documentation. The goal is to
find a way to make that process as painless and efficient as possible for

| | "Hart, Geoff" |
| | <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA> |
| | Sent by: |
| | bounce-techwr-l-55034 -at- lists -dot- |
| | |
| | |
| | |
| | 09/18/02 02:26 PM |
| | Please respond to "Hart, |
| | Geoff" |
| | |
| |
| To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com> |
| cc: |
| Subject: Providing fully customizable online Help? (Take II) |

Jim Shaeffer suggested that I "glossed over this phrase from the original
poster": <<complete with forms, dialog boxes, and menu
commands that we would never have foreseen.>>

True enough. I assumed that the original poster meant that the developers
know all existing interface objects, but have no clear idea how they will
combined in practice--rather than assuming that the users could create
interface objects nobody had ever seen before. In hindsight, not
a good assumption, but if true, the task is very similar to documenting a
programming language's API, and checking the archives for information using
related keywords could provide additional insights.

But as Jim suggests, if the software is more protean than I imagined, this
is a truly intractable documentation problem.

--Geoff Hart, geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada
580 boul. St-Jean
Pointe-Claire, Que., H9R 3J9 Canada
"User's advocate" online monthly at
Hofstadter's Law--"The time and effort required to complete a project are
always more than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's

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