“You know what .chms need? More bling-bling. More flash…”

Last week Kristi Leach wrote a tweet about the need for help to transform into a more attractive format:

Kristi's tweet about the need for help to change

Kristi's tweet about the need for help to change

Her tweet expresses what I’ve been feeling for a long time.  There’s a massive rift between content online and content in help files. In most help files, the content is static, old, textual, boring, unhelpful, sometimes obvious, or irrelevant, never packed with eye-candy, video, or any human element. It could exist inside medical packaging. IE’s help provides a perfect example:

Internet Explorer's help -- please, try to contain your excitement to jump into the content here

Internet Explorer's help -- please, try to contain your excitement about the content here

The world online, on the other hand, is more appealing, more full of multimedia, more interactive and eye-catching. Is it any wonder why people first turn to Google rather than an application’s help file?

For an example of a website with flash and bling, I refer you to The Dog Files. I’m not a fan of dogs (although after watching Bolt at the dollar theater last night, most of us wanted a dog). Instead, I heard about The Dog Files site on a WordPress podcast with Jeffro (episode 33), who interviewed the site developer and producer.

The Dog Files is a custom WordPress site that displays rich media in a unique way. The heart of the site is a video screen, similar to a TV that you flip on. Immediately you know the site has an entertainment component as its focal point.

The Dog Files has a video player as its focal point

The Dog Files has a video player as its focal point

Navigation buttons conveniently span around the video player. When you click the Episodes button, rather than seeing a plain list of titles, you see thumbnails next to each image along with a short summary of the content.

Episodes have eye-catching thumbnails and are styled attractively

Episodes have eye-catching thumbnails and are styled attractively

The Shop, Blog, and Forum features are directly integrated into the site, making it one seamless experience. The user doesn’t have to navigate separate sites linked together.

You can interact with almost every page by commenting on both blog posts and videos — without having to log in. (However, you can log in directly in the comment form if you want.)

You can also share the videos easily (they use Viddler) as well as subscribe to the video podcast in iTunes. In other words, the media isn’t trapped in the site, but can be easily shared on your own blog, where you can expand on the concepts, or you can download it to your iPod, where you can watch it wherever you want.

You can download the video content onto your iPod

You can take the content with you, downloading it onto your iPod.

I’d like to package help into a site like this. Granted, the team that created this site has serious PHP/WordPress and video skills. Also, I recognize the limitations of this site with translation, budgets, and time constraints. Still, how cool it would be! I see similar sites like WordPress.tv and Adobe.tv and it makes me feel excited about help. It changes all the previous attitudes about help being useless, unhelpful, and boring.

To produce such a site, you have to expand your skillset, but not too much. With a little web design, screencasting, and audio skills and you can put together something like this. Those aren’t so much the challenges I face right now as much as infrastructure limitations (my IT department doesn’t support PHP). I’m also in an intranet rather than web environment. Still, this is the direction to go.

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Kristi

    Hi, Tom. Thanks for picking up this topic for your post. I think the visual impression that our help files make can maybe even impact how our projects get prioritized. If a programming manager has to decide how important it is to allocate hours for installing context-sensitive help, I’m guessing that a .chm just doesn’t look that important. I know there’s more to it than that, but still.
    I tweeted in a moment of frustration after delivering a draft .chm and alias files to a software architect. Our products are complex, and interface with each other in a network of shared windows and menu options. In order to single-source the associated help, we were pulling topics from two sub-projects into two main projects, then merging the two .chms at runtime so that our conditions wouldn’t fight each other. On top of that, we were setting things up in those projects to be able share common content across all our other projects. We worked weekends and overtime to get it set up and to get the content updated, too, on an aggressive schedule. I think I can speak for most of us and say we were pretty excited about it.
    The architect was underwhelmed by our runtime .chm merge. After reading his tepid email, I opened the .chm again, imagining that I was seeing what he sees—a grey frame, hokey toolbar buttons, and hundreds of topics in which we hadn’t enriched the verbiage because no updated functionality was associated with them. For someone who already doesn’t fully get our process, our weeks of work were not evident.
    When he spoke to the Orlando STC chapter this fall, Joe Welinske named Netflix help as an example of the places we need to think about going as UA developers. He suggested that the demand will increase for more customized formats and technical skills. Ever since then, I’ve thought of the .chms I’m working on now as training wheels.

    • http://idratherbewriting.com Tom

      Kristi, thanks for the comment. Your project sounds interesting. I know the feeling of doing something that’s significantly complex, only to have the recipient yawn at the details.

      Thanks for the tip about Netflix’s help. I’ll definitely check that one out.

      About .chm files, I actually don’t use this format much. Didn’t Microsoft change their security restrictions a couple of years ago, making .chm’s difficult to display across networks? I stopped packaging my help with the application code long ago, because I wanted to be able to update my help on the fly (for example, it’s rarely possible to record a sufficient number of video tutorials before a release, but I can usually add them in the few weeks after a release). I put my help on SharePoint and have the developers link to the help file. Because of this, the .chm format never works for me. Even webhelp is still unexciting.

  • http://www.thedogfiles.com Kenn

    Thanks so much for this great post about my site! I really appreciate the time and thought that went into it.

    Now, what do I have to do to get you to like dogs?!

  • Kirsty

    I really like the interactive and up-to-date content that can be delivered with web technologies, but with pretty much all of our products, we canot presume our users will have an internet connection of any kind (e.g. mines in Mongolia and Siberia), and some of our governmental users will also be restricted as to what kind of web information they will be able to surf. Of course, you can do a lot with HTML-based formats installed locally, but that’s as much as we can consider for our users right now (bummer).

    I also had a colossal fail of a web-based theory tonight. We had some kind of DNS issue with our router, and so no internet connection – all of the links Microsoft gave me to help resolve the issue were on the web … so I had to call my in-house tech support, and he hard-booted the modem (pulled the plug out a couple of times).