Re: WinHelp 95 help approach

Subject: Re: WinHelp 95 help approach
From: Kent Newton <KentN -at- METRIX-INC -dot- COM>
Date: Wed, 24 Jan 1996 10:06:00 PST

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Tim Altom, of Simply Written, Inc., responded:

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.

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.

Sure, Win95's help stays on top. You could turn on "Stay on Top" on Win
3.x , too. But it obscures the screen if your application takes up the
entire screen, which most usually do if the screen resolution isn't set
to 1024x1024. Then you find your self moving the help window around to
get at the screen beneath it.

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.

In many cases, I don't think the writers are writing for on-line
distribution. Many on-line help systems are simply ported from the
printed document to on-line help. This allows the company to produce one
source and make it do double duty. While it works, it doesn't work well.
Users notice when on-line help isn't designed well, and that shines a
bad light on the software and the company. The company thinks they are
saving money doing this, but they are losing the respect of their
customer base. They'd be better off if they spent the money and actually
designed the on-line help separately. Sure they could use the printed
documentation as a starting point, but it needs a lot of editing and
redesign.

Kent Newton
Senior Technical Writer
Metrix, Inc.
kentn -at- metrix-inc -dot- com


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