Online Help is a more efficient and effective User Manual that allows its implementers to “present the right information to the right people at the right time in the most effective and efficient form”

The Features of Online Help

When properly implemented, Online Help acts as an extension of your technical support team by providing quick answers to your customers’ questions. Online Help is superior to other forms of end-user documentation because it is:

  • Integrated. Online Help is integrated directly into the software interface by selecting an item on a Help menu, by clicking a link or button on the interface, or by pressing a key on the keyboard (such as F1 or Help).
  • Task-oriented. Online Help provides information that guides and assists the user in real work tasks, not just practice tasks, as found in tutorials.
  • Immediate. Online Help provides “just in time” information that gives an immediate answer to a question about a specific window, dialog, or field. This saves the company money whenever it obviates a call to the support center.
  • Paperless. Online Help provides useful information without the need for printed materials. This saves the company money and the end user space on his desk.
  • Expandable. Online Help provides links to the internet for access to online reference material, thus providing all of the advantages of Online Help and all of the advantages of server-based solutions from one interface.

Types of Online Help Information

Online Help systems generally contain the following types of information:

  • Concept. Concept files provide information about basic concepts or principles that are useful for conveying how an application handles certain situations. These files usually help users determine which settings or options are best for their advanced user needs. For example, concept information in a project management application could include a discussion of how to determine what category or status options a company needs to be able to assign them to projects, such as Open, Complete or Internal. The Help information would describe the concept of project status and include considerations for making the various options available to users.
  • Task. Task information helps the end user complete a specific task. Each task that the end user can perform while using the application is documented in the Online Help system. Task information in the project management application scenario would tell an end user the steps to use to change the status of a project from Open to Complete.
  • Reference. Reference files usually provide detailed information about certain aspects of the application, such as menu descriptions, field descriptions, command tables, or syntax diagrams, which is especially helpful in more complex applications. In the project management application example, an explanation of each field a user can modify on a project form (project name, client name, project status) would be considered reference information.

Online Help Implementation Options

Online Help systems can be implemented in several ways:

  • Standalone. Standalone Help provides basic information about the entire application. Sometimes this is merely an online version of the printed user manual. Standalone Help usually is launched from a common Help button or menu item and displays the main splash screen for the Help system. From this main screen users can browse or search for the information they need. A standalone Help system is a good first step to providing task-based information to users in real time.
  • Window context-sensitive. Window-level Help provides specific information about the tasks that can be performed from a certain interface screen. This Online Help implementation includes information about every menu, button and command on the displayed interface, which is often linked to other tasks and concepts, as necessary. Window-level Help usually is launched from a unique Help button or menu item on each dialog or screen and displays a specific Help topic for the window it was launched from. From this window-specific topic, users can browse or search for related information.
  • Field context-sensitive. Field-level Help provides detailed information about how to enter information into a specific field on an interface. This information is especially helpful when a field requires specific syntax that might not be obvious to a new user. Field-level Help usually is launched from a Help button or “hot” area next to or over a field on a window or dialog. Because field-level Help only provides a small bit of information about a particular field or element of an application, it often is implemented in conjunction with a standalone or window-level Help system.
  • Embedded. Embedded Help refers to task-based information displayed on the application interface that dynamically changes as the user steps through a procedure or process.