Re: WinHelp 95 help approach

Subject: Re: WinHelp 95 help approach
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 08:12:00 EST

>Maybe I'm just an old fogey, but I like to use manuals. I feel like I've
>got more control over what I'm looking for: I'm not at the whim of some
>on-line help *designer* to determine which links are important. I've
>seen too many help systems with illogical links or no links where some
>should be. With a paper manual, I can eaily flip to where I want. Also,
>with on-line help, I have to toggle back and forth between the help
>screen and the application screen. With a manual, I can keep the manual
>open while I follow the steps. This makes it easy to compare the
>instructions to the current screen; with on-line help, you have to
>ALT+TAB back and forth. Annoying.

>(As a side note, I've been after my boss to buy the department a serious
>set of reference materials -- American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary,
>Thesaurus, Dictionary of Technical Terms, etc. Instead of spending the
>$100 or so dollars to buy one set of manuals, he wants to upgrade two PCs
>with quad speed CD-ROMS and buy an electronic reference library! What
>kind of logic is this. Besides spending more money than necessary, the
>electronic is more trouble than its worth.)

WinHelp 4.0 can stay open on top of the application, so it's not
automatically obscured anymore. But I'm with you about the feel of paper. I
remember decades ago when my local library system went paperless, chucking
out all of its card file cabinets. It drastically altered how I did
research, and I still miss them. The local university kept its card files,
but didn't update them, so they became useless after awhile, too.

The paper vs. online wars can only intensify in the future. And I fear that
online will eventually win, as it has at Microsoft. The problem is that a
poorly designed online help file is probably a bigger liability than a
poorly designed paper doc. Hypertext relies for its structure, as you noted,
on the designer's perception of user need. Paper docs can be scanned for
information even if it's not organized correctly. Hypertext usually can't.
The problem I'm seeing with a great many hypertext docs is that they're
badly designed because the authors are not trained in hypertext techniques.
I'm working on a help file right now that I'm only coding, not writing. It
wasn't a marvelous piece of work in the first version, and version two is
even worse. Lots of boring, repetitious conceptual matter that seems written
by a marketer with a word processor and a thesaurus. Definitions on the page
instead of in popups. Big illustrations with notations to "look at picture
A, below." The writer had no hypertext sense, but that's not unexpected.
She's not a techwhirler, after all. But many of our own are producing little
better, because while the tools are readily available, the training in
hypertext is not. Once again, the tool has become more important than how
it's to be used.

Tim Altom
Vice President
Simply Written, Inc.
Technical Documentation and Training
Voice 317.899.5882
Fax 317.899.5987

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