My Love Affair with Drop-Down Hotspots Ends
I used to think drop-down hotspots were the cat's pajamas, until I realized they're problematic for single source chunking. Let me elaborate.
Drop-down hotspots seem like they'd be all the rage -- the ability to compress massive amounts of information into little spaces that are easy to scan. You can get around the bloated TOC that intimidates readers with its endless books that expand and expand. Instead you make your help file look thin and sexy.
Here's an example of drop-down hotspots from Flare's help (see image).
There's a lot of text compressed into a little space. Cool -- with one glance, you go immediately to the info you need.
Falling in love with this idea, I started putting hotspots all over my help file. This shrank the TOC considerably, making the help look more approachable, not so gargantuan. And then I realized something that stopped me cold ... hotspots don't chunk.
Sharon Burton has a nice post explaining topic-based authoring. The idea is that you write your tasks in separate little chunks, and then you pull those chunks into the outline/TOC that you want. So you can have an advanced TOC that has all the chunks, and then a quick start TOC that has just a few select chunks.
The problem with the hotspots is that they don't chunk. You can't pull one hotspot into your Advanced TOC and another into the other Quick Start TOC. Once you start using hotspots, you commit yourself to that chunk size. In the Flare example I'm using (see image), if the author wanted to strip out only the "How to print and distribute a hard copy version," perhaps for a quick guide on printed material, he or she couldn't do it -- the hotspots don't lend themselves to chunking. You'd have to include the whole family of hotspots into your TOC. That sucks!
So although you gain strides in usability, you lose the ability to manipulate your content into manageable chunks. Without those little chunks, you're force yourself into a larger software manual with less flexibility.
Chunking may make life easier for producing multiple outputs with varied TOCs, but the TOC structure becomes bloated. If each hotspot becomes its own topic, you suddenly have three or four times the number of topics in the TOC. So you group the topics into more folders, and put folders inside of folders. Pretty soon the TOC is no longer navigable except by search.
At this point, feeling that usability and efficiency are not both attainable, the only thing left is to watch this cool exploding skateboard video.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation if you're looking for more info about that. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me. Finally, note that the opinions I express on my blog are my own points of view, not that of my employer.