Location: United States

A New Yorker relocated to Florida. I have fifteen years in the IT industry, with stints in product management, database management, application programming... I've been a CIO, a consultant, a software evangelist... one of these days I'll write up a proper profile.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Windows Vista - the New Help System

There doesn't seem to be a lot yet written on the new XML based Windows Vista help system. As proof, the Windows Vista Developer Center at MSDN actually has a dead link to an article entitled "Introducing Windows Vista Help." Greg Shults at TechRepublic has a nice article but most of it is a recap of the Windows Help since version 1.0. And, of course, most of the pages in the help system of the current beta carry a prominent warning that the help text is incomplete!

Be that as it may, the central new idea of the Vista help system is called the "assistance platform," or "AP Help." In essence, it can display information, suggestions, and interaction with the user interface of the application. It also can support an escalation path something like multi-tier tech support, or at least it's recommended that it do so.

Perhaps it's best to describe the help system interaction with the application in terms of how the user perceives it. To use one of the two examples that Shults cites, in the help page called "What's New in the Documents Folder," there is a link called "Do It For Me."

Pressing the Do It For Me link...
The help topic itself provides brief descriptions of the new controls and options in the Documents Folder. When pressing the link entitled "Do it for me," the help system offers either to automatically guide the user through the Documents folder or just show the user where to click. In the former case, all user input is disabled and the user sits back and views the cursor movements and information boxes that pop up which explain what is being done. In the latter case, user input is limited only to what the task allows (any other key press or click brings up a dialog that asks if you want to exit). As the "how to" progresses, all parts of the screen are slightly dimmed except for what the demo calls attention to, and the dialog box that provides the text for the "lesson." Unfortunately, I could not grab a screen shot. The impression, however, is very slick, and this could be very helpful to both business and home users. The help system's ability to assist the user is created using a feature supported by the new help system markup language, and is referred to as "active content."

This new markup language is called MAML (Microsoft Assistance Markup Language). It essentially takes Windows HTML help and provides a more easily readable markup language as well as the ability to create "active content." We should note that "active content" can also provide help that is somewhat less flashy yet useful, such as bullet list links that expand in place when the user clicks on them. As someone who recalls the pain of creating help files for Windows 3.0 using "Word for Windows" to create endless footnotes to be read by the .HLP compiler, MAML does look very nice indeed.

The indented lines in this illustration appeared after clicking the link line above it
To quote an example from an AP Help Overview which of the examples below is more easily identifiable as a headline:

< size="3"><><>Frequently Asked Questions< /em>< /strong>< /font>

<>Frequently Asked Questions< /title>

The latter, of course, is the MAML example.

Third party developers will obtain the ability to create AP help only with version AP Help 2.0, to be released sometime after the launch of Windows Vista. That's a shame, but I assume the reason is that it won't be ready. It will be interesting to see if Microsoft Office contains AP Help before it's released to other companies.

I do see one minor problem in the current help system.. when jumping from topic to topic the width of the help window changes. This means that the "back" button moves left or right according to what page you're on. This in turn means that the control is literally a moving target for the end user's clicks, which usually confuses the user and invites a problem.

Speaking of inviting a problem, the one place I would HATE to see active help is in security settings for Internet Explorer or any of the security tools... unless the active content was restricted to one direction, namely increasing security.

Some may say that active help such as this is another example of dumbing down the user interface. I don't see it that way. This is not something that takes away or hides options from power users (as, for example, some of the things that the Gnome project has become infamous for in the last few years). Power users can still look up information in the help system quickly, perhaps even more quickly than before. It is possible that some developers might find it tempting to delete proper documentation from the help file, and instead just put in active help; that would be limiting. Too many independent software vendors and IT personnel think that users are dumb. In my experience, users only do dumb things if IT personnel aren't available to answer questions. The new Windows help system will encourage users to seek answers for their questions if vendors include adequate documentation in the system.

The changes to the help system do point to a larger issue, Microsoft's recommendations for changes to program design in general as documented in the Inductive User Interface Guidelines. These guidelines are something that developers need to know about, and I'll put in my two cents in a future entry.

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