Online Help Essentials

There are a number of help-authoring tools to choose from, some of which are plenty pricey! Whichever you use, you must install the help-authoring tool, learn how to open and close it, create a few topics, and then compile them. The following lists the essentials that you must how to do whichever help-authoring tool you use:

Note: The tasks list below are just an overview; don't try performing them now. There are tutorials for some of the help software, as you will see.

Getting Started, Creating Topics, Compiling

  1. Acquire, download, and install the help-authoring tool.
  2. Learn how to start the help-authoring application and exit it.
  3. Learn how to start a new help project (or whatever the help-authoring application calls it) and how to save it to a directory (folder) of its own. Help projects are typically made up of many source files—very important to know where those project files are kept.
  4. Learn how to create topics (separate chunks of information that as "source" are saved as separate files), name and save them.
  5. Learn how to open saved topics, enter some text into those topics, and save them again.
  6. Learn how to compile a help project—which means making it ready for users. (Have at least two topics that the help-authoring application can compile.) Make sure you know what the compiled project is named, where it is stored, and how to view it.

    Note: The two primary ways help projects are compiled are the .chm or .hlp file and a set of HTML and supporting files. Make sure you can generate both when you compile.
  7. View the compiled help project. (It isn't much at this stage—you can't even link to the other topics. But it's a start!)
  8. Find out whether your compiled help project is self-contained—in other words, you could move it to another computer, click on it, and it would still run. Some help-authoring applications require you to bring along several "run-time" files which enable your compiled help to run.

Linking Help Topics

What makes hypertext hypertext is the ability to link to various segments of information. You need to ensure that you understand how to create links in whichever help-authoring application you are using.

  1. Make sure your online help project has at least two topics that you can link between.
  2. Learn how to create a link from one of the topics to the other. And from that other topic, create a link back to the first.
  3. Check the help-authoring application you are using to see if it will link to specific points within a topic. Some help-authoring application only enable you to link to the top of a topic. Typically, links to specific points within a help topic rely on bookmarks that you must set.
  4. Check to see if your help-authoring application has a related-information function. Although this function varies from application to application, it opens up a list of related-information links or provides an easier way to arrange them.
  5. Compile your help project and see if the links work.

Designing Help Topics

Explore your help-authoring application's tools for using bold, italics, different type sizes and styles, headings, bulleted and numbered lists, tables, color, and other such. (We'll do graphics later.)

  1. Open or create a help topic that you can use to explore page design.
  2. Find out how to create two or more levels of headings.
  3. Find out how to change the font and the type size of selected text.
  4. Find out how to bold or italicize selected text.
  5. Find out how to change the color of selected text.
  6. Learn how to create bulleted and numbered lists. Make sure you find out how to reset the numbering back to one for topics containing multiple numbered lists.
  7. Find out how to change the indentation of selected text (including lists).
  8. Use your help-authoring application to create a simple table.
  9. Find out if your help-authoring application has a "styles" feature in which you can design the look of a certain kind of text, name it, and then use it. For example, if you want your head 1 to use 18-point bold teal Arial, it's tedious to have to define all those details each time. Better to call it something like my_head1 and click on that style choice every time.
  10. Save your project, compile it, and take a look.

Popup Help

A nice feature of most online helps is the popup help that displays a brief definition or other information right on the same screen—without the user having to link to a new topic. Typically, these popup helps are indicated by a dashed green line rather than a solid green line. Your help-authoring application may not suppport this function, especially if it's shareware. But take a look. If it does, take notes!

  1. Open or create a help topic.
  2. Find out how and where you create the popup text, how you name it, and how you set the link to it.
  3. Check to see if screen-design features work on the popup help.
  4. Check for other similar functions: for example, inline "popups" or drop-down "popups."
  5. Save your project, compile it, and see if the popups pop up!

Help Contents and Indexes

Probably the most challenging thing you'll do with your help-authoring application will be to learn how to create tables of contents and indexes—that is, of course, if your application supports these features. Of course, you can create a TOC just by setting up the links on an ordinary topic. But some help-authoring application enable you to design a TOC that displays in a frame to the left of the reading window and is visible at all times. Check your help-authoring application carefully to see if this function is available.

  1. Open up an existing help project or create a new one.
  2. Create at least three topics for this project. Include several lower-level headings in each topic.
  3. Find out whether your help-authoring application has a TOC function. If it does, find out how to create the TOC and identify topic titles and subheadings to include in that TOC.
  4. Save your project and compile it. Check your TOC. How does it look?

Another important function is the help index, which enables readers to look at an index-style listing in order to find the information they need. To create an index, you typically embed index tags within your topics. Again, check your help-authoring application carefully to see if there is an index function.

  1. Open up an existing help project or create a new one.
  2. Create at least three topics for this project. Include several lower-level headings in each topic.
  3. Find out whether your help-authoring application has an index function. If it does, find out how to create the index and how to create index entries, and then create three or four index entries for each topic.
  4. Associate index entries with some of those lower-level headings, and see if clicking on the entries for those headings in the index takes you to those subheadings or merely to the top of the topic.
  5. Check to see if there is a method for causing index entries to point to specific points within a topic. Usually, this is achieved by setting bookmarks at those points where you want index entries to point.
  6. Save your project and compile it. Check your index. Do the index entries work?

Graphics

One issue I'm sure you are interested in is graphics. How do you incorporate graphics into your helps?

  1. Open up an existing help project or create a new one.
  2. Find a graphic you'd like to display on a help screen. Find out which graphic file formats your help-authoring tool supports: GIF, JPEG, BMP, or other.
  3. Embed the graphic into your help topic. Check to see whether your help-authoring application links to the graphic or actually embeds it. (If it links to the graphic, be ready for some problems if the compiled project doesn't include the graphic.)
  4. Check to see what controls you have for positioning, sizing, cropping, or adding labels to the graphic.
  5. Save your project and compile it. Check that graphic. How does it look?

Programs and information provided by hcexres@prismnet.com.