Should you fix the window size in Help?

July 1, 2013

B asked:

I wanted to set the size of the XHTML window when the user brings up the help. I did a search and found your script to set the initial window size, which worked great. I would, however, like to set the window size so that all of the text fits in a pre-determined window size and the user does not have to scroll to see content. Would you know how to do that and be able to help me?

My response:

I’m not sure how much I can help you as I’ve hardly worked with any form of HTML/XHTML in several years. And when I did, I didn’t set the window size as the user can do that themselves, if they want.

That said, let me ask you a few things.

  • When you say scrolling, are you talking about vertical or horizontal scrolling? Vertical scrolling is generally unavoidable unless you make your topic content short enough, and even then, if the user increases the font on the fly, the scroll bars will still appear.
  • Do you have tables or images in your content? If you do, then horizontal scrolling may be unavoidable too, unless you make those tables % widths (whole table and columns), and you make the images % widths (even then, I’m not sure that the images will resize to fit the available viewport of the window).

By default, your text content should wrap within the viewport, so at worst you may have vertical scroll bars if your text is long. But tables and images may not fit within those dimensions and thus create horizontal scroll bars for those topics.

I think you also need to do some user research and find out if your users *want* a fixed window for the Help. Personally, I wouldn’t be happy if someone set the window size or position and I couldn’t resize/move it. In fact, I’d get angry that someone presumed they knew how I read Help or how I wanted to read Help. For example, I use two monitors (as do many people), and will put the Help on one monitor while I do the task in the app on the other one. Windows size is unimportant under those circumstances, unless of course it is too small, or resizes itself to a fixed size/position, when I would curse the Help developer every time I went to a new topic and it resized, or every time I opened the Help. I would give up on that Help very quickly.

And I deliberately say do some *user* research – what your bosses want may well not be what the users want, and the users are the ones who read the Help, not your bosses. The user wants to get in and out of the Help quickly, wants to be able to find what they are looking for quickly (have you accounted for a long/wide TOC in the window size?), then get on with their task. If they have to continually resize a fixed window (or if they can’t resize it!), then that distracts them from that task. And if a user resizes the font so they can read it *at a size that suits them*, then all the fixed sizing you do is moot.

Also, if your app is available for mobile devices or other small form factor devices, then a fixed window size will be MORE than a pain for the users.

Finally, have you considered how people who don’t have 20/20 vision might view your Help? If it’s in a fixed windows size, then they will get the scroll bars when they resize the font no  matter what.

Bottom line: Don’t do it.

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