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Web-based vs Offline Help Systems

By March 13, 2009 January 3rd, 2011 Development

As you probably know, I work for a software development company –  and during a routine lunch hour, I  began wondering why our software still shipped with offline help files (CHM), rather than offering the help files online. You see, every now and then, our company discovers that the help files are missing some information; however, we can’t do anything about it until the next release. Sure, we can temporarily alleviate the problem by creating external knowledge base articles, but it doesn’t fix the fact that clients have the same help files, without the new information. This situation brought an interesting question to the table:

Why don’t our products have web-based help?

Example of web-based help

Example of web-based help

I came up with numerous advantages and disadvantages:

Advantages:

  • Help content can be updated at any time, regardless of product and version.
  • Help articles can be easily referenced via URL.
    • Whenever I’m doing support, it often occurs that the solution to the customer’s problem is found in the help system – they either missed it, or they didn’t look. Rather than just tell them to read the help, I usually include the help content as an attachment. I figure it is more convenient for the client, and that improves the support experience. I also make sure to mention that it can be found in the help, and I tell them what to search for. This is all well and good; except that copying help content from a CHM (my company’s typical help format) isn’t perfect. When I paste it into Wordpad, the images are not preserved – so I often have to copy them myself, one by one, to the Wordpad document. This requires manual work on my end, and that’s not ideal. If we had an online help system – I could simply link them to the article, and they’d be a click away. Plus, if that help content needs to be updated, I’m sure they will have access to the latest version. On the other hand, if they were to re-visit the attachment months after I originally provided it, it may be out of date.
    • URLs are lightweight, unlike attachments –  they are easy to share.
  • Search engines will see much more related content
    • Not only will the ranking improve, but other message boards and sites may link to the help content, which should also help.
    • Could potentially increase the number of web site visitors
  • Better features, potentially. Some widely-used offline help formats are now considered obsolete.
    • Some help files are no longer supported, like WinHelp:
    • Ever since Windows 3.1, Microsoft included the Windows Help program (WinHlp32.exe) with new releases. WinHlp32.exe is used to view 32-bit Help files that have the .hlp file name extension. Starting with the release of Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008, Microsoft has decided to no longer include in WinHlp32.exe as a component of the Windows operating system. Microsoft made this decision because WinHlp32.exe has not had a major update for many years, and it does not meet our standards for all new Microsoft programs. Microsoft realizes that this may cause some problems for customers who want to upgrade to Windows Vista or to Windows Server 2008 but still rely on 32-bit .hlp files. Therefore, Microsoft is making WinHlp32.exe available as a download from the Microsoft Download Center.

      Vista's Help system starts users off with offline help data, and downloads updated help content as it becomes available.

      Vista's Help starts off with offline data, and is updated in the background, via the web

    • The CHM format is old – it was originally created for Windows 98. Though they updated it through the years, I would not be surprised if Microsoft eventually started discouraging it as well, in favor of the newer Help 2 format (HXS extension).
  • Possibility of embedding rich content.
    • A good example would be demo videos. Personally, I usually prefer watching how a feature works, rather than reading about it.

Disadvantages:

  • Internet connection required
    • A local copy may be a necessity. Personally, I like a flavor of that idea – start them off with an offline cache, and enhance that with the ability to update the help content on the fly. I really like Vista’s help – they offer that mechanism.
  • Both offline and online help systems have be maintained
    • If applicable. see previous point.
  • Some users are annoyed when they are thrown to a web help system
    • I’ve felt this personally, and it usually occurs when I am within the context of a Windows application – say, Paint.NET. When I click “Help Topics” in the Help menu,  it launches a browser window. It is definitely not what I would expect to happen when I’m using  a Windows application. I don’t expect to need a browser; therefore, the behavior usually frustrates me. It’s not very quick, either – the browser needs to initialize, and then load the webpage. Not all browsers are very good at loading quickly, so this is normally a pain. Eventually, I get over the initial frustration, and realize that the online help system proves to be pretty good. The funny thing is – I’ll get frustrated all over again if I temporarily forget that the applicaiton will launch a web browser, which is common the first few times.
      Paint.NET will throw you to an online help system when you click the "Help topics" menu item.

      Paint.NET will throw you to an online help system when you click this menu option.

  • Competitors have access to detailed help content
    • If your product is available for evaluation, then your help files are already out there; however, if it is of limited availability, and security is a concern, then maybe this point is valid.
Wrap-up

All in all, it seems to me that an online-only help system isn’t reliable enough – you have to consider people on the go, using their laptops – and also those you do not have Internet services. I feel like the help system in Windows Vista has it right – you start off with help content that was shipped with the product, and you have the option to tell it to keep the system up-to-date via the web, behind the scenes.
As for the company I work for – our help files are still in CHM format, and we have yet to progress towards an online initative. After writing this article, I think I’m in a better position to propose taking steps towards a Vista-like help system.