Re: embedded help

Subject: Re: embedded help
From: dmbrown -at- brown-inc -dot- com
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 18 Mar 2005 12:40:38 -0800

Has anyone used embedded help in their software UIs? What were your
experiences with developing and implementing it? Have you gotten positive
feedback from users on this feature?

With the help of a "true believer" developer, I finally got help embedded in the application pages about 16 months ago.

I was able to move a lot of verbiage (critical stuff you really *needed* to know) out of the "app" portion of the page and into the help portion, a narrow panel down the right side of the window.

On a few pages, help might obscure the ends of long filenames, for example, and we knew expert users didn't need help; so we made it easy to hide the help, giving the app full use of the entire window, and to display it again. Your preference (showing or hidden) was retained across sessions.

It was great. I could use the same dynamic content mechanism in the help files as we used in the app code to guarantee the help documented precisely what was displayed in the app page.

People got the info they needed, expert users didn't have to wade through wordy text to get to the controls, and the help didn't need a lot of extra verbiage to provide context. Heck, lots of people didn't even realize it was help.

Of course, that meant that only a few people said "yes" when asked whether they used the help. As a result, the help has been moved back into a secondary window in the upcoming release.

Marketing says they want to use the entire window for app controls, but there's not enough time in the schedule to actually redesign 90% of the existing pages, so only 15 or 20 new pages and a dozen or so reworked pages will actually use the full width of the window.

The cost for those few pages? In that same limited schedule, in addition to documenting new and changed features, I have to rewrite scores of help files to accommodate all possible cases: "If your account has the so-and-so feature, use the Womble button to frub the jamowitz." "Talk to your account manager for information about adding the Womble feature to your account." "Some of the following features are optional and may not be available to you."


We're debating this possibility and wanted to know other companies'
experiences before deciding to proceed. We're a two-person team, so we're
not sure whether this would be out of reach, considering that we would still
need to create traditional online help and manuals.

We did include PDF manuals, but did not have a separate help system in addition to the embedded help.

I'll use embedded help again, wherever given the opportunity.



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