What was once a great divide between the help content and the software, is fast becoming harder to delineate. Where does the software stop and the help start.
The drivers of new technology are unavoidably software focused, this is where the most investment and thought is invested. This has histroically been done in isolation of help, which have largely come into existence off the back of website technologies.However, more recently we are seeing increasing embracing of user assistance as part of the software itself.
The divide between the software and the help is becoming significantly blured.Windows Vista’s ribbon bar and super tooltips are two examples where the advice on using functionality and the buttons that actually achieve it are becoming one.
The ribbon presents both textual and graphical clues to enable the user to understand how to use it.
Super tooltips provide effectivley a mini help topic within the application (perhaps foreshadowed by WebHelp popups).
This development, far from threatening the position of the Technical Author, presents an opportunity that has been long awaited in the industry. The communication skills of the author can be utilised not only in the separate (and sometimes strange land of) online help, but can be brought to bear in the software itself.We are no longer simply bridging the gap between the software and the user. Rather we are closing the gap to enable the software and the user to work more closley.
It is essential to our industry that we prepare and capitalise on this opportunity. Our single sourcing needs to be ready to produce content for a wider variety of media (embeded help panes, super tooltips, ribbon content). Our topic categories need to complement the types of popups required in the software (particularly super tooltips). Our context linking needs to complement the help within the software with additional targeted information.Finally, this is where the rubber is going to hit the road for incosistencies in language between the help and the software. We need to be ready to provide standards for naming and describing the pallete of tools and dialogs employed to deliver functionality. Then, devlopers and tech authors have the chance of addressing the user with the same words, with consistent tone, and without needlessly repeating themselves.