Tech Write Tips

August 18, 2006

Best Practice: Screen Estate

Filed under: Best Practice,Tip — AndyR @ 12:55 pm

As mentioned in the Jenson Blog recently, screen real-estate is at an all time premium. When you see how much time and effort is spent ensuring software doesn’t needlessly waste screen real-estate, it makes you realise the responsibility we have as authors to use the help window wisely.

Alot of benefit can be gained by considering ways in which we can make best use of the space.

  • Provide navigation within each topic so the users doesn’t have to open the TOC to move around the help.
    • Breadcrumb trail
    • Cross Topic links
    • See Also links
  • Open the HTMLHelp with TOC minimised
  • Desgin topics to fit in smaller portion of screen.
    • Screen shots width is critical
    • Tables used for content or layout should fit width
  • Avoid scroll bars appearing by fitting content to one window
    • Turn off test on the HTMLHelp toolbar buttons
    • Provide help topic in a pane contained in the application.
    • Turn off keep help on top.
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19 Comments »

  1. I think it all depends on what type of application it is, how complex the UI itself is, who the audience is who needs the help, the minimum screen resolution specified in the design spec, and some otehr things. It may be beneficial if I explain what I mean by the types, who, and what.
    Type of application:
    – single application / fat client (and maybe also server app)
    – thin client
    – web client
    Complexity:
    – few / many controls
    – few / many options
    Audience:
    – novices to anything computer
    – novices to particular type of software
    – intermediate subject matter experts
    – full pro geeks
    Screen resolution (means how much real estate is there available at all):
    – low (640×480) / medium / high resolution (1280×1024)
    – how much space does app need to be used comfortably
    Other things:
    – needs to work with AT applications
    – training is offered / mandated
    – how often do customer use the UI (once a year/month/day, always)

    So it really isn’t that easy to give a definitive answer to that question. The higher educated the customer and the less complex, the less help is needed and I might just go for a side pane that has some hints. When the application is complex and the customers typically are not that savvy, more help is needed including how to use UI controls (scrollbars, drop-downs, context menus, etc.) as well as a good primer about what the application is supposed to do and what needs to be accomplished. For droolers I add how-tos and make the developers add wizards, that have help attached as well. I typically try to get something going side by side, which makes the “no scroll” rule impossible. Otherwise I go for a non-modal, free floating help window.

    PS: “Alot” is not one word, but two. Don’t frown, pretty much anyone writes this wrong. 😉

    Comment by RamonS — August 19, 2006 @ 12:21 am | Reply

  2. Thanks for your comments, and interesting points. It certainly is more complex than it first appears.

    Where you do need more information for more complex applications, would you not split this into spearate topics.

    I have quite complex applications and often beginner users, so I have alot of help required, but still split this into separate topics.

    For me the issue is one of visibility. The user has a certain threashold to press Help/F1, then more of a threshold to scroll through the help.

    It does raise a secondary question about what is the most important help information. Perhaps something we coudl look at in another post.

    Has anyone else tackled this in their help (I’m sure there is).

    Comment by techwritetips — August 21, 2006 @ 8:33 am | Reply

  3. The F1/Help threshold is a given that can only be minimized by rewarding the user for their action by providing some real help. The scrolling issue is very much related to screen resolutions. I deal with customers who run anything from 640×480 to 2048×1536 or even higher. Most common is 800×600 and 1024×768. With a screenshot, some text, and maybe 1/3 of the screen available to help, there isn’t much space for help. Of course splitting into several topics makes sense, but I think that following three or four links is more annoying than to scroll down. The scrolling may go away with higher resolution, the numerous links won’t.
    I understand the reasoning behind the “scrolling is evil” viewpoint, but I don’t think it is really that big of an issue.

    (from http://forums.madcapsoftware.com/viewtopic.php?t=1623&highlight=&sid=e804e8a70a19d8e540a9b35509d26bc4)

    Comment by RamonS — August 22, 2006 @ 7:19 am | Reply

  4. I am aware that we are probably starting with different requirements.

    I want to make my help topics small enought so they can sid beside the software in a 1/4 of the screen. Therefore I don’t usually need screen shots, as the application is already visible.

    However, I’m interested in your comment about scrolling being being less annoying than following links. I would suggest that (provided the links instantly return the topic) clicking a link has the advantage of providing the user with a clue about what infgormation it will get them to. Scrolling on the other hand doesn’t give so much guidance about the information they can’t see. They just have to browse through the content.

    This, of course, dissapears as an issue if you are happy to use more screen space, and have higher screen resolutions.

    Comment by techwritetips — August 22, 2006 @ 7:27 am | Reply

  5. RamonS wrote:
    You know, this is something I never thought about. Making the help window small enough so that most of the application itself can be seen really makes replicating what is already there pointless. I wonder if there is a way to specify the help window location when one clicks Help. I may want the help window to show in different places on the screen initially as to not cover what I want to describe.

    That would even be better when one has real F1 help that shows help for the control that currently has focus.

    from http://forums.madcapsoftware.com/viewtopic.php?t=1623&highlight=

    Comment by RamonS — August 22, 2006 @ 4:41 pm | Reply

  6. Yeah yeah yeah!

    This is what we do. The help opens on the right, and doesn’t obscure the application. This means we have vastly less screen shots to maintain.

    To suplement this I include some contextual screen portraits. I spend some of the time I saved from screen shots on my portraits, which can actually end up being pretty rich. I also include some concept diagrams that I knock up in visio.

    The result is not only a small (less scrollable) help, but one that is alot easier to maintain. Especially when you have those last minute changes to UI (a simple search and replace can fix them, as there is no no-tectual content to worry about).

    I’d be very interested in how this falls out for you.

    Anyone else take this approach?

    Comment by techwritetips — August 22, 2006 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

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