Context-sensitive help technologies

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Context-sensitive help technologies

A full tutorial on implementing context-sensitive help in applications would go well beyond the scope of this help. This topic is just provided to inform you of the various context-sensitive help technologies that are available in Windows so that you can consider using them in your application.

Context-sensitive help technologies available in Windows:


Little "tips" that appear automatically when the user moves the mouse over a control. These are usually implemented in the application itself rather than being stored in an external help file. Most modern programming environments support tooltips.

Even if you don't implement any other kind of context help for the controls in your application it is always a good idea to include tooltips with brief explanations of what the controls do. This alone can significantly reduce the number of support requests you have to deal with!

What's This? help:

In many modern applications you can right-click on a control and select a What's This? option that displays a popup window with a help text. If you can make your users aware of this (and that is not easy) this can significantly reduce support requests.

This can be implemented with the help of popup topics created in Help+Manual. The advantage of this is that the topics are displayed on their own in a little independent window, without opening the entire help.

Microsoft includes support for What's This? help in its programming languages. The free EC Software Help Suite tools package available on our website makes implementing What's This? help easier in older versions of Borland Delphi and Borland C++. Delphi 2005 and later have integrated support for CHM and do not need the Help Suite.

Help buttons in dialogs:

These buttons link directly to the relevant topic in your main help file. These are implemented with a direct call to the help file and the topic.

All dialogs requiring any explanation should have a HELP button. In addition to making your application much easier to use these buttons also help to ensure that your users actually read your help instead of just reaching for the phone or writing you an email!

F1 context help:

Relevant help is displayed automatically when the user presses the F1 key. What help topics or features are called depends on where and when the user presses F1 (the "context"). How this is implemented depends on the individual programming language and it is entirely up to the programmer. As the help author you only have to provide the programmers with the necessary topic IDs and/or help context numbers so that they can call the appropriate topics.

Training card help:

This is a powerful but rather cumbersome help technology developed by Microsoft and supported in HTML Help. It allows you to create interactive tutorials in your help that automatically perform actions in your application when the user clicks on hotspots and links in your help. For example, you can invoke functions, display menus, select options and fill out data fields to show the user how to do things.

For programming information on implementing training card help see the MSDN Library on Microsoft's website we can't provide direct links here because the MSDN web programmers change the addresses so frequently.

Although training card help is a very powerful tool there are good reasons why it is very rarely used. It can be quite tricky to implement and every programming language handles it differently.

Interactive wizards:

There are basically two kinds of interactive wizards: "Programmed wizards" created as part of your program and "help wizards" created with help technologies like HTML Help.

We don't want to go into programmed wizards here, but they can be very useful for guiding your users through complex configuration tasks. For example, a help wizard could guide a user through the process of configuring a complex program, only continuing to the next dialog screen when all the settings have been completed correctly.

Non-programmed help wizards are simply ordinary help files, or sections of help files, that teach users how to perform a specific task in a systematic way. They can be integrated in your main help but it is generally a good idea to create them as separate help files. Then they can be called when needed and they don't get in the way when they are no longer needed.

Simple help wizards guide the user through a task or procedure without direct interactivity. For example, you could create a little help project that shows the user how to configure your program. Each topic would be a single step in the procedure, with screenshots showing exactly what needs to be done and Next and Previous buttons for navigation.

More advanced help wizards make use of training card help (see above) to open dialogs and perform operations in your application. If you use this you should always also prompt your users to try the procedure out for themselves as well, otherwise they will only learn how to use the wizard rather than the program itself!

Flash demos:

Flash demos are not really a context-sensitive help technology but  they can be a useful addition to interactive wizards. Help+Manual can insert Flash demos in your help files with just a few mouse clicks.

These demos are animated movies in the Flash format that show your users exactly how specific operations are performed in your application, just as if a teacher was there demonstrating it for them on the screen. There are now a number of software tools available for making Flash demos. These tools are like screenshot programs, except they record a movie of what you do on your screen instead of just a single still image. Some even allow you to include sound

Making Flash demos can be a quite a lot of work but they are an excellent way of showing beginners how to do things. It is not a good idea to include them in the main help because users generally don't need to view them more than a couple of times. It is best to use them in separate help wizards that users only run when they want to learn how to perform a specific task.

See also:

Using Context-Sensitive Help

Creating popup topics