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Are Help Authors the Best Choice for Web Publishing Projects?
1997, Jan-Feb (June 06, 2008)
By Ann-Marie Grissino, Principal of Keypoint Consultants, a documentation and media design firm.

Companies are requesting that their publications managers, who are stretched to the limit in managing hardcopy and Help development, now find someone who can create Web-based documentation. These managers are grappling with the question of whether their current Help authors are the best choice for this new venue.

In this article, I’ll describe the similarities and differences between Help and Web page development. The technology for Web page development is changing so fast, that information printed in the Fall may be outdated by now. Similarities and differences listed here will most likely change soon.

Hypertext in Help and HTML

Help authors already have a rich understanding of hypertext, topic determination, and organizational structure. These concepts are intrinsic to both help and HTML files. Because Help authors have been working in hypertext for some time, they’ll have a leg up on the new HTML authors you might bring on board.

One of the most serious complaints about earlier Help systems was the ability to “get lost.” Studies found that Help users (1) preferred less than six jumps in one topic, (2) needed to know where they were in the Help hierarchy at all times, and (3) wanted to be able to jump to the main contents from any location.

Help authors bring the solutions to these issues to the Web development table. One often hears about getting “lost in space” when surfing the Internet. While this may be entertaining to some in certain situations, this may be frustrating when attempting to find specific answers quickly and efficiently. Previous Help authors soon see that the navigational references, “home buttons,” and the “less-is-better” concept they used to create Help systems are desperately needed in Web pages, too.

Hyper-Graphic Links

With Help, authors can define an area on an image that becomes a link to another topic. These are called “hotspots.” With HTML files, authors create image maps, which reside on the server.

Rather than develop image maps, many authors now create tables where cells, which contain individual graphical elements, combine to appear as a single larger graphic.

On the image map or table, the author can select an area that becomes a link to another topic.

Although learning the intricacies of Web tables can be tricky, the use of links on images is nothing new to Help authors.

Varying Window Types

With Help, authors can create any number of window types, based on main windows, secondary windows, or popup windows. Authors can define the size, colors, and initial display location of those windows.

On the other hand, Web authors create HTML files that display in and are controlled by the browser. Colors can be specified for HTML files, but certainly not as easily as with Help windows. The browser also controls the initial display location and window size.

Popup Windows

Another disturbing limitation is the omission of popups from HTML. Oh, my. What is a Help author to do?

Popups have become a standard way to handle glossary terms, expanded notations, graphic enlargements, and much more in Help. Help authors will need to rethink how to present information that used to work well in popups.

But, wait a few weeks and you may see information about how to simulate popups in HTML!


So, will our current Help authors be able to jump into the Web fray and produce quality documentation quickly? Absolutely. They are your best bet.

You can reach Ann-Marie at keypoint at ral dot mindspring dot com. End of article.

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