Two cool tricks for Web-based Help

Subject: Two cool tricks for Web-based Help
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 17 Nov 2006 08:46:28 -0500

Thought I'd pass along a couple cool tips related to file management and Help topics in the context of Web pages. The first one, first described (in my experience) by Colin Dawson (, is so simple it's positively brilliant. Here's the example Colin gave:

If your Web pages are ASP files, you'll be generating a series of Web pages with names like "file.asp". Rather than obsessing over map IDs and how to pass those along to the developers so as to make the help context-sensitive, you develop a standard naming convention: use the identical file name, but replace the .asp with .htm for the help file's name. Away goes any need for a map file and numerical map IDs! This approach is easy to extend: if the files produced by the developers end in .htm, you add a small tag to the help file name: thus, for page.htm, the Help file becomes page-h.htm or page-help.htm if you don't feel the need to be concise.

Obviously, what this lets you do is work a bit more independently of the Web developers (i.e., no need to exchange and verify map IDs) because the naming convention is simple, consistent, and easy enough for even a developer to use. <g> Of course, you still have to do some QA, but much less than with map files because it's harder to undetectably screw up an alphanumeric name than it is to mistype a simple number, and easier to catch the error. I imagine the same approach could be extended to conventional (non-Web) software too, with a bit of fudgery to make the plumbing work: so long as each screen, window, or dialog has a name, you can add -h to the name of the help topic.

This first tip comes from a summary of an presentation by Colin at the last STC annual conference, in which he discussed the use of Flash files (loaded from pages named as described above) to present the online help. That's the second trick. Not enough details in the summary for me to say much more, but basically this approach takes advantage of the fact that Flash is more standardized than HTML plus javascript, and thus behaves more predictably across browsers and platforms, because one company (formerly Macromedia, now Adobe) controls development of the reader. But there are other cool things you can do with Flash that are trickier to do in HTML plus its add-ons.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)

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