Newsletter of the Society for Technical Communication, San Francisco Chapter
Do you want to get ahead of the curve? Joe Welinske, President of WritersUA (www.writersua.com), suggests learning about Microsoft Longhorn Help or Web-based Help. Longhorn Help requires knowledge of XML-MAML (Microsoft Application Markup Language). Web-based Help, which does not have specific standards, allows you to push the envelope -- to be a pioneer.
"User assistance is more than documents and traditional online help," said Welinske. "Although Help is still the prime deliverable, 90 percent of online help is not very good because it is written by people who do not want to do it." Effective Help explains the user interface and the knowledge domain. It also provides topic access through context sensitive links, a table of contents, an index, and search. User assistance tools include Microsoft HTML Help for Windows, Oracle Help for Java, Sun JavaHelp for Java, Apple Help / Guide for Macintosh, and PDF authoring. "Continued support and commitment for Sun JavaHelp and Apple Help is suspect," said Welinske. "People who are knowledgeable in JavaHelp are moving to browser-based Help." Software development is moving away from HTML and toward PDFs, without indexing, for online help.
Microsoft is putting large amounts of resources into Longhorn Help. Longhorn is Microsoft's new operating system scheduled for developer release in mid-2005 and public release in 2006. Longhorn Help is a proprietary Windows solution that uses XML-MAML instead of RTF and HTML. MAML, Microsoft Assistance Markup Language, is a schema that defines vocabulary that the Windows platform can use to work more efficiently with Windows Help. The XML-based format is used for topic files and navigation elements, and topic-level metadata can be accessed throughout the operating system. Authoring support will be provided by outside vendors as it is now for HTML Help, and there is a new API for linking to Help applications. Longhorn Help is not backward compatible.
The Web has no specific standards for Help, so you can push the envelope -- be the pioneer. "Applications are moving to full Web compatibility and major platforms do not have Help solutions," said Welinske. "Browser-based Help is perceived as cheap, easy, and effective." There are many ways to do Web-based Help. Welinske showed us several examples: the Amazon.com Help Desk basic approach, the MSN.com Top Customer Questions idea, Monster.com's FAQs, and the more traditional, comprehensive context-sensitive help at CharlesSchwab.com.
Intuit and Microsoft are doing embedded help for their applications. Sentences or phrases are added directly in the user interface to anticipate questions ahead of time. This type of help requires that documentation people get involved very early in the design stage.
For more information, visit the Writers UA web site at www.writersua.com. It is an invaluable resource for what is happening in the world of user assistance.
Alison S. Gemmell is a Senior Member of the STC who writes software user documentation, FAQs, Operation and Maintenance Manuals, procedures, and STC speaker reviews.
Copyright © 2005 by the Society for Technical Communication, San Francisco Chapter (www.stc-sf.org). This article may be reprinted in another STC publication under the provisions of the chapter's copyright policy.