Single-sourcing online help?

Subject: Single-sourcing online help?
From: Geoff Hart <Geoff-h -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
Date: Wed, 12 May 1999 09:02:41 -0400

Chuck Martin wondered: <<is it possible to single-source
online & print and author in HTML?>>

You've already answered your question: no. In fact,
sometimes you don't even come very close, since the online
help and printed docs commonly have entirely different
purposes and thus, different contents and structures. One
simple example of why it isn't possible involves annoying
little details: online, it's easy to use "click here to jump to a
related topic", whereas in print, the equivalent should be "see
the heading XXX on page YYY for related information", and
neither translates simply into the other medium's format.
There are many subtler problems too, such as the fact that
much online help is contextual (and the context--e.g., a
particular screen or task--is absent or one level of abstraction
distant in print, so that you have to describe it). About the
best you can do is adopt an approach that lets you reuse text
as much as possible, thereby minimizing the amount of
reworking required. But for the forseeable future, you'll still
have substantial reworking to do.

<<RoboHELP produces horrible print output, and the way
it does it doesn't lead to well-formed print output... Now
we've decided to not only move to HTML-based Help, but
also there is a push to author directly in HTML.>>

Given the primitive state of help systems right now, and
particularly HTML help, I've chosen to develop the print
documentation first, then adapt it for online. Among other
things, I have the (subjective rather than research-based)
opinion that on the whole, users remain uncomfortable with
online help and prefer to have something in print, and this
way, I at least get something useful into their hands when the
product is ready to ship. For different audiences, YMMV of
course. I strongly suspect that once XML is well-developed
and implemented throughout the Web, Help, and
wordprocessing worlds, my approach will change, and
perhaps dramatically.

--Geoff Hart @8^{)} Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"If pro is opposite of con, then what is the opposite of progress?"--Anon.

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