Context-sensitive - menu-item topic or... Clippy?

Subject: Context-sensitive - menu-item topic or... Clippy?
From: "McLauchlan, Kevin" <Kevin -dot- McLauchlan -at- safenet-inc -dot- com>
To: "techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 10 May 2010 13:33:20 -0400


Is there a happy medium?

A lot of so-called "context-sensitive" help seems to be little more than a link from a menu item or dialog to a page about that menu item or dialog.

That's fine, as far as it goes, if you really need help figuring out menu items or dialogs. And that's no small thing, when a dialog makes assumptions about what you are doing and how you got there, and that you understand the terminology. Having a page that expands the terminology and translates it, and gives some clue about the outcome(s) of each option and entry, can be of enormous help.

But it's a long slow slog if you know you want to accomplish something, but aren't sure where to start, what the program calls that task/operation, how the task (if it's even possible) is broken out among menu items and dialogs, etc.

At the other end of the spectrum was the much-beloved Clippy - "You seem to be trying to shoot yourself in the foot. Would you like to know which end of the gun to point at your foot? Have you already used the Foot Chooser? Do you need assistance finding the safety? Do you wish to clean and lubricate your gun? Have you installed the right bullets? Click here for a discussion of bullet types. Click here for an incomplete table to almost match your gun with bullets that might fit. Click here to start on-line chat with an Em-Ess guru who can talk you through the process of getting your gun configured, loaded, cocked, and discharged into your foot. (Note that there is a basic charge for ten minutes of chat-based assistance, but a surcharge is applied if you need to discuss left-handed handling of your Em-Ess gun; no surcharge if you have purchased the Left-Hand Em-Ess Gun. Educational and government-agency discounts apply - have your organization discount code ready.).... Click here, for general aiming instruction, if the target is not your foot. Click here to start on-line chat with an Em-Ess targetting guru... Click here for a list of insurers - those marked with an asterisk provide discounts if you have taken the Em-Ess Certified-Shootist, Certified-Range-Master, or Certified-Gunsmith courses."

How do you real-life authors deal with getting the real Help to the user - the kind that helps them figure out what they are trying to accomplish and how they should best approach it, as opposed to the kind that tells them what the fields are for in the Print dialog?

Is it as simple as having additional links at the bottom of the page that opens when the user clicks [F1] while a dialog is open?

Or do y'all have more sophisticated strategies? What might some of those be?

I'm in the position of having created stand-alone WebHelp for several of our products, anticipating the day when we'd move to a GUI. That day looks closer, so I'm taking more interest in blending my existing Help with the dialog-connected context help I would be creating.


Kevin McLauchlan
Senior Technical Writer
SafeNet, Inc.
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