Where to start with HTML Help

December 18, 2008

Diane K wrote:

I have not created online help (incredible!). Now I am tasked with this project.

I know a little HTML and I am learning about the application. HTML Help is already written, but it was written by several people who are not writers, includes help that is not helpful, and it’s a mess. They want me to redo it.

I figured, I’d buy a book or access a tutorial… That’s my usual strategy. But, alas, I have found very little. I downloaded some presentations and found the Web Design Group’s Standards for HTML Authoring for the World Wide Web. I am going to start reading today.

Any suggestions?

My response:

Knowing HTML alone is not enough to create HTML Help.

What deliverables does the client need? CHMs (HTML Help)? Web-based Help (HTML files + other things that create the Toc, Index, Search tabs etc.)? Java Help? Oracle Help? Be aware of the limitations of some formats. For example, while Microsoft’s HTML Help Workshop will produce CHMs, CHMs must be installed locally, only run on Windows, and cannot be viewed over a network (without hacking each reader’s computer registry) or the internet. HTML- or web-based Help produces lots of individual files, which shouldn’t be an issue, but you won’t know until you ask.

The deliverable will determine the tool you use. And my recommendation is that you’ll need a tool. Sure, you can do it by hand—if you’re a masochist—but tools take away a lot of the pain of doing the non-writing stuff, like an expanding/collapsing TOC, a Search, an Index, popups, DHTML expand/collapse sections, etc. Ask the client what, if any, tools are already in place.

Check out and compare various tools over at HAT-Matrix: http://www.hat-matrix.com

And for some of my tech writing book recommendations, see http://astore.amazon.com/cybertconsul-20/. For what you have to do, I highly recommend Jean Hollis Weber’s “Is the Help Helpful?”

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