Re: Help for help screens

Subject: Re: Help for help screens
From: "Susan W. Gallagher" <sgallagher -at- STARBASECORP -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 26 Jan 1995 12:15:58 -0800

From Tammy:
> I have been asked to present a one hour crash course on help windows. Can
> anyone give me some input about current trends (I don't mess with help
> screens outside of my own company's software) in help screens? What are
> common problems that you've noticed? Can anyone offer suggestions on how
> they would approach this topic?

> I don't know where I want my starting point to be or even what I'll talk
> about. Most of my recommendations would be on tech writing in general
> (i.e., writing for your audience, writing in the active voice etc.).

> Any ideas or comments are greatly appreciated.

The biggest mistake people make when developing online help
is in trying to make one panel do it all. This results in
panels that are 1000 miles long -- and the user's interest
flags long before the end of the topic. Help topics should
answer a single question -- What is it? How do I use it? OR
What does that mean? These can be translated into context
sensitive, procedural, and conceptual sections -- each
section of the program or each dialog box having one, two,
or all three types of panels associated with it.

The second biggest mistake that people make is in linking
everything to everything else, allowing the user to get
lost in hyperspace at every turn. Limit linked information
to that stuff that is essential to the completion of the
current topic and allow the user to reach "the end" -- a
point at which he/she has traversed all associated subjects
and feels as if all knowledge on the topic has been reached.

Glossary sections and index panels (alpha lists of each panel
in the file) are nice, but not necessary. I don't like to
see a full-blown glossary section unless the number of terms
that need to be defined warrants it (maybe more than 20).

Keywords should be implemented as thoroughly as paper-based
indexes are. Microsoft used professional indexers to work
on the keywords for Win95 (Lori - thought you'd like to hear
that!) The result is more synonyms -- lots more!

Trends include...
Presenting procedural topics in child windows.
Minimalist instruction techniques.
Smaller fonts and fewer bitmaps.
In Win95, the context sensitive section will be replaced
by pop-up "what is it?" help for each dialog box control.

Hope this helps to get you started. Good Luck!

Sue Gallagher
StarBase Corp, Irvine CA
sgallagher -at- starbasecorp -dot- com


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