Help Authoring Systems

28 April, 2008 at 9:57 am | Posted in Help Systems | Leave a comment
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When I wrote my first Help system, I wasn’t given an authoring tool, so I had to hand-build it using Word. All the Keywords, Context Numbers, etc. were special footnotes, which had to be manually inserted. It took a very long time.

Then I acquired a copy of the brilliant Forehelp. This product is no longer available, but is sadly missed (and not just by me it seems). The best part of it – well, one of the best parts – is the Forehelp Help system. I don’t think there was ever something I wanted to do that I couldn’t find clear instructions for. I learned a lot about constructing a good Help system from their excellent example. (I still have a copy of the software on an old Windows 2000 machine that sits under my desk and is occasionally switched on when I need to look at the old database.)

When I was asked to write a Help system for my husband’s company about 3 years ago, I hunted around for a tool to use. I did find one which purported to be similar to Forehelp, but it was very buggy and I kept losing my work.

When I got my shiny new Vista machine earlier this year, I realised that it was time to upgrade the Help system for my company’s product. I’ve been quite impressed with the tool I found, Help and Manual, available in the UK from QBS and ComponentSource.

As I’m an author working alone I don’t need a highly sophisticated tool, and Help and Manual fits the bill very well.

It does have a pretty good Help System itself, and it has converted all my old Help files almost perfectly – just the odd topic has gone astray and it couldn’t cope with topic anchors (links from one topic to anchor text within another topic). It also has its own image hotspot editor which I believe other tools don’t have – even the very expensive ones.

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Software Documentation – what users want to know

23 April, 2008 at 4:21 pm | Posted in Help Systems | 1 Comment
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Much software user documentation – Reference Manuals, User Guides and Help Systems – are written from the point of view of “this is what it does”.

But that isn’t what a user wants! When they refer to the documentation it’s because they want to know how to do something.

So why is so much user documentation so useless? I suspect the main reason is that it’s easier to write a descriptive manual than it is to think of all the possible things the user might want to do and then write the instructions for that. After all, you’re bound to find yourself repeating the same instructions in several different places – but the user doesn’t want to have to keep flicking to “page x” or “section y”. It’s easier with on-line text of course, although it often happens that you click through the hyperlinks and then forget where you started from.

If we’re talking about a paper manual, it’s rarely read from front to back like a novel (unless someone has a serious problem of insomnia). It will usually be “dipped into”, so as a minimum you need a good table of contents and ideally you should provide an extensive index.

Help systems are a different kettle of fish altogether. They are always “dipped into” and the user needs to be able to locate the information they are seeking very quickly. I’ll be exploring how not to design Help systems in later posts.

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