Re: Help for help screens

Subject: Re: Help for help screens
From: "Doug, Data Librarian at Ext 4225" <engstromdd -at- PHIBRED -dot- COM>
Date: Tue, 31 Jan 1995 09:26:44 -0600

This is written in response to Tammy's request:

I have been asked to present a one hour crash course on help windows...
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.).

Your instincts are good. Non-writers (and some writers) *think* that the
hard part of help authoring is typing the jump codes correctly and knowing
which footnotes handle which functions. In reality, the hard part is
designing the information.

At one time, people believed that hypertext was a "technical fix" for the
problem of organization. If users where free to choose their own paths
through the information, then organization no longer mattered. What we
found instead was that the critical issues in paper document design
(correct chunking of the information, setting up relationships, etc.) are
super-critcal issues in electronic documents.

Essentially, a hypertext authoring system like WinHelp allows authors to
manipulate the organization of the document in the same way a laserprinter
and desktop publishing tools let you manipulate the appearance of a
document. Just as newbie DTP folks tend to go crazy and use 14 fonts in a
five-page document, newbie hypertext authors tend to spin webs everywhere
and create a document that can't possibly be navigated. If the students
are enthusiastic, counsel simplicity.

At the other extreme, new authors will sometimes try to take the easy way
out and just dump word processing files into on-line formats. This
generally doesn't work very well, either, since print has a much larger
display area, and access patterns are different. Even a well-written
print document will need some re-design before it can be a successful
on-line document. If the students are lethargic, try to spark some energy
and curiousity so they're willing to put in the work.

Given your very tight time constraints, I'd try to leave them with some
sort of reference card. William Horton published some "rules of thumb" in
"Technical Communication" a few years ago. They cover things like the
number of jumps a user is willing to make before finding information, and
so forth.

Good luck with your project,


Doug "Did you really think that you could
ENGSTROMDD -at- phibred -dot- com conjure up the Devil, and then expect
him to behave?"
--Fox Mulder

The preceding opinions and positions are mine alone, and are only
coincidentally related to those of Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.

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