| by Scott DeLoach
Beginning with Windows 98,
Microsoft has migrated from RTF-based Help (WinHelp 3 and 4) to HTML-based
Help. Although HTML-based Help offers some exciting new opportunities
for technical writers, it requires fundamental changes in how we create
online help. This paper provides an overview of HTML-based Help and demonstrates
some different design approaches.
What is HTML
HTML Help is Microsoft’s replacement
for WinHelp and the standard for HTML-based Help. It combines HTML files
and an Active X control (hhctrl.ocx) to create a compiled Help system
with a TOC, index, and full-text search tool. HTML Help can be used to
display context-sensitive popups and Help topics for web-based applications
or Windows applications developed in the latest versions of C++ and Visual
Basic. HTML Help is used to provide Help for Windows 98 and IE 4, and
it will be the Help system for all near-term Microsoft products. The previous
WinHelp, RTF-based Help system will be supported until at least 2007.
Figure 1. HTML Help example (Internet Explorer 4
Overall, HTML Help’s features are similar to WinHelp 4.
The TOC, index and full-text search are all basically the same as WinHelp
4. Visually, the Help system is divided into a "tri-pane" window:
the tool bar pane, the navigation pane, and the content pane. The Hide/Show
button can be used to show or hide the navigation pane.
Problems and Limitations
HTML Help has a few potential "gotchas"
lurking behind the scenes. The HTML Help engine is really a subset of
Internet Explorer, so users are required to have at least Internet Explorer
3.02 installed on their computer. Advanced features like Dynamic HTML
require IE 4+. As with previous versions of Microsoft Help engines, Windows
is also pretty much required. The navigation pane and its tabs are controlled
by an Active X control called hhctrl.ocx. If the user does not have this
control installed or if the Help is being accessed through the Internet,
the control will be downloaded from the Internet. Normally, this takes
about 45 seconds. If the user’s security settings do not allow downloading
of Active X controls, the TOC, index and full-text search features will
not appear. On the development side, HTML Help expects the author to use
separate HTML files for each topic, often resulting in hundreds of HTML
If you are developing Help for a new Windows product that
does not currently have Help and is being developed in the latest version
of Visual Basic or C++, you should consider HTML Help. If you are developing
Help for Windows 95 or 3.1 applications or if you are maintaining large
legacy documentation sets, you should consider staying with WinHelp. If
you are developing Help for a web-based application, you are much better
off considering an HMTL-based Help approach.
is HTML-based Help?
HTML-based Help is any online Help system
created using HTML files. As opposed to HTML Help, HTML-based help does
not normally require Internet Explorer or Windows. It also appears in
a new web browser window (as opposed to HTML Help’s custom window). HTML-based
and Active X. Active X and VBScript are normally used if the target audience
is using Internet Explorer exclusively. If the audience is using a mix
do HTML-based Help systems look like?
The biggest design influence for HTML-based Help is the
target user browser. Internet Explorer 4+ provides the most flexibility
because it supports Dynamic HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and Active
X. For IE 4+ projects, HMTL-based Help systems closely resemble HTML Help
with a CGI search tool replacing the HTML Help search facility.
The example provided in figure 2 is a cross-platform HTML-based
Help system for Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer version 3+. This
prototype appears in a standard browser window with the toolbar, status
bar, and menu bar removed. The HTML Help tool bar and the button’s functionality
browsers and are much faster to download. The completed version of this
Help system features popups from the Help content and TOC, watermarks,
and a guided tutorial of the web-based application it supports. All of
I create HTML-based Help?
One of the easiest ways to create HTML-based Help is to
use Blue Sky Software’s WebHelp. Using RoboHelp Office version 7, you
can create WebHelp from HTML or WinHelp source files. A downside of WebHelp
and many other HTML-based Help systems is that they do not include a search
tool or index. These features can be added by using various indexing tools,
including Microsoft’s Index Server, or using a CGI script. However, adding
a search tool can be difficult and often takes a significant amount of
Figure 2. HTML-based Help example (Netscape and IE 3+ compatible)
Figure 3. WebHelp example (sample provided with RoboHELP Office)
What is Embedded
Embedded Help is Help that appears within the application
rather than in a separate Help window. The first example of embedded Help
to gain much attention was Microsoft Money 99. When the user selects "Help
Topics" form the Help menu, the Money 99 Help attaches to the right
side of the application. The Help offers tutorials, explanations, and
demonstrations to help the user use and learn Microsoft Money. Embedded
Help can be created for current version C++ or Visual Basic applications
by embedding an Active X-based web browser into your application. The
Help itself is created using HTML files.
Figure 4. Embedded Help example (Microsoft Money 99)
Embedded Help can also be created for web-based applications.
In Figure 5, a frames-based web application actively displays context
sensitive Help when the user selects different form fields.
Figure 5. Embedded Help example (Web-based application)
Do I Create Embedded Help?
Embedded Help requires a close working relationship
with application developers. To add embedded Help to a Windows application,
the developer will need to embed the web browser Active X control. If
you are creating embedded Help for a web-based application, your developer
your Help topics. The Help files will need to be created using HTML.
As you can see from the examples, the Help area will be
very small. Your Help topics will need to be very focused. If you are
creating Help specifically for IE 4, knowledge of Dynamic HTML and cascading
valuable as well.
HTML-based Help offers many exciting
features for online Help developers. Web-based Help will allow us to maintain
one copy of the Help on a web server. If we need to make any changes,
we can update the Help in one place for all users. New technologies such
us to provide interactive and embedded Help. We are all at the beginning
of a new learning curve for online Help, but time spent learning HTML-based
Help tools and technologies will more than pay off for our users.
Heinle, Nick. Designing with
Zacker, Craig. 10 Minute Guide to HTML
Style Sheets. New York, NY: Que, 1997.
STC Online SIG. Hyperviews:Online. www.pobox.com/~STConlineSIG.
WinHlp-l discussion listserv. See www.documentation.com
for information about subscribing.
Founding Partner, User First Services, Inc.
45-B South Peachtree Street
Norcross, GA 30071
Phone: (404) 520-0003
e-mail address: email@example.com
Web site address: www.userfirst.net
Scott DeLoach is a founding partner of User First Services
(www.userfirst.net), where he provides documentation and interface design
consulting and training to companies in the Southeast. Scott is the STC
International Online SIG Manager and the Atlanta chapter Web Manager.
He has received local and Society-level awards for online communication,
including an Award of Distinguished Technical Communication in the 1997
Online Communications Competition.