| 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 Help?
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 Help system)
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.
Potential 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 files.
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.
What is HTML-based Help?
What 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.
How do 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 time.
What is Embedded HTML-based Help?
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.
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.
How Do I Create Embedded Help?
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e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.