Sunday, March 12, 2006

Documentation on the web

There is something very interesting about web applications that desktop applications lack. That is integrated help. When you go to amazons page for Pragmatic Programmer (good book btw) notice on the right hand side in the blue box there is a link to learn more about how users save 1.57%. Or if you go to a random product on you will notice that there is a link for a size chart. Head over to Slashdot and make a comment or most every online blog and you will often find a list of html tags you are allowed to insert, hints, and tricks on how to make your blog entry 'rich'. Sites like provide an easy way to learn the wiki syntax. And if you go to wikipedia you will find a whole toolbox of links to documentation about thing you might want to do with that particular page. And to use 30boxes again they provide right on the main page an example of how to add an event.

Because the interface for a page in a web application takes up the full size of a web browser and the web application is mostly text (rather then buttons, lists, and menus) it is easy to think about adding help into the page. Not only can you integrate help into the webpage, but you can have the help be determined upon where you just were and what your current task is. And to top it all off because the help is right there users will actually read it unlike most application documentation which is read by so few users. Part of the reason might be that with web applications you can review the logs and see that everyone stops using your site on page X. Adding a tiny bit of docs to that page then gets everyone past it. As a developer having the docs embedded within your application I bet you would find yourself caring about it a lot more too.

KDE actually has a built in mini-documentation features, called WhatsThis. Of course I think you all will agree that WhatsThis is used probably less then someone reading the actual documentation. As sad as it is tooltips provide the majority of documentation for users. Some widgets do provide more such as the OS X search widget actually has some text inside it telling you what it does. If you goto you will notice that same thing in their search box. Browsing around in applications I actually had a hard time finding much embedded documentation. The closest thing is toolbars that have text under them. Maybe clippy has something to do with this. There was such a backlash against clippy that no one has dared try anything similar. Today many believe that there is some magical interface that is so user friendly anyone can use it without any documentation no matter how complicated the task.

Here are just a few simply ideas on how documentation could be more integrated with the application:
- Now that we have opengl windows you could flip a window over and on the back would be the documentation for it.
- A drawer that would contains mini paragraphs about the current operation and links into the docs for more information.
- Clickable lables with links into the documentation or even just pulls up the documentation in a drawer.

Of course these are just some ideas off the top of my head. User interface testing would be a key aspect to finding out what would work best. Suffice it so say when you use online applications that has embedded documentation it makes the entire experience easier and better.

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