How does the Help System know which page to display?

15 May, 2008 at 12:59 pm | Posted in Help Systems | 2 Comments
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Ever wondered how, when you press F1 or click on the Help button, the system knows which page to show you?

It’s all down to Context Numbers.

There are two ways of getting these, and both involve working with the software developer(s). Either the Author tells the developer which number is associated with a window or active area, or the developer tells the Author.

It doesn’t matter which way round you do it, although many Help Authoring systems will generate Context Numbers and produce a .csv file that the developer can use to update the code.

Personnally, I prefer to number the pages myself, or at the very least specify the starting number. That’s because, for my current Help system, I’ve got separate Help files for optional software elements. I like to keep the numbers of the main Help pages in one group (1to 999), and then the numbers for the separate optional files are grouped in thousands.

And yes, I do have over a thousand help topics…

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How not to design a Help System – part 2

15 May, 2008 at 10:08 am | Posted in Help Systems | Leave a comment
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The other day I was working with a developer on the Context Numbers. He spotted that I had two different numbers for the same window, in two different Help files.

We have 2 versions of our software and although the window is the same in both cases, the route taken to display it is different.

All my Window help pages have a “How do I display this window?” link at the top, which takes you to a small page which explains the menu options and buttons to press. So I needed a different page because the link was different for the two systems.

“Why do you do that?” the developer asked.

Have you ever used a Help system where you’ve typed a search term into the Index, found a page which describes a window which does exactly what you want – and then screamed at it “So how do I get there?” ?

I explained this to the developer, and he said “Oh, if I was writing the Help, I’d just describe what the window does. I would never have thought of that.”

How not to design a Help System – part 1

7 May, 2008 at 3:26 pm | Posted in Help Systems | Leave a comment
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My daughter is highly computer-literate and has taught herself how to use many software tools. She is therefore something of an expert when it comes to how good – or bad! – Help systems are.

Chatting to her last night while helping her prepare dinner, she recounted her early attempts to learn how to use a well-known graphics package.

“Being a beginner, I wanted to know how to draw a line,” she said. Not an unreasonable thing to want to do you may think. So she typed “draw line” into the Help Index.

No references.

Apparently, this package uses some other term for this basic shape.

Now this is a classic example of the Help not being written from the users’ point of view. I’ll tell you about another example in my next post.

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