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Why Online Help?

What is Online Help?

Online Help allows its implementers to “present the right information to the right people at the right time in the most effective and efficient form” (Horn). Rather than ask a user to thumb through a document of some type, an effective Online Help system will try to provide the user the most pertinent information related to the specific task that they are performing.

The term “Online Help” generally refers to topic-oriented, procedural or reference information that is delivered using computer software as a form of user assistance. Most Online Help systems are integrated into the final product and are designed to assist end-users of a software application or an operating system, and can be used to present information on a broad range of subjects.

Online Help systems are delivered in a number of formats, such as WinHelp (.HLP files), Microsoft HTML Help (.CHM files), WebHelp, JavaHelp and others. Some Online Help systems utilize features known as bubble help, context-sensitive help, or embedded help, but all Online Help systems are delivered with the software application or operating system that they support.

The Features of Online Help

When properly implemented, Online Help acts as an extension of your technical support team by providing quick answers to your customers’ questions. Online Help is superior to other forms of end-user documentation because it is:

Types of Online Help Information

Online Help systems generally contain the following types of information:

Online Help Implementation Options

Online Help systems can be implemented in several ways:

While context-sensitive, field-level and embedded Online Help systems are most effective at providing the user the information needed for the specific tasks at hand, these types of implementations also require more effort and cost to deploy.

What is not Online Help?

Online Help systems must be differentiated from a similar, but different, brand of information referred to as online reference material. Online reference material generally is product documentation stored on a server and delivered through a website. The following are types of online references:

Online reference material should be viewed as serving a purpose different from Online Help. Such delivery of reference material can be effective in communicating general product information and concepts and is usually targeted at a broader audience than Online Help.

Developing an Online Help System

Online Help needs to work with the user interface and fit into the overall documentation set for a particular software project. However, once it is decided that the users of an application or interface would benefit from an Online Help system, it is best to coordinate the development of the Online Help with the development of the user interface, the interface design, and the documentation plan rather than producing it in isolation or as an afterthought to the project.

The basic steps involved in developing an Online Help system consist of the following:

  1. Analyzing the audience.
  2. Creating high-level and detailed specs.
  3. Performing a task analysis.
  4. Creating a content-development plan.
  5. Coordinating with the development team.
  6. Writing and reviewing the Online Help system topics.
  7. Building and testing the Online Help system.
  8. Integrating the Online Help system with the application.

The Benefits of Online Help

There are three over-arching benefits that arise from the implementation of an effective, well-designed Online Help system:

How to Get Started

Online Help gets the “right information” to the “right people” as effectively as possible. Determining the type of Online Help system that is right for your application requires that you consider the needs of your users. You must analyze how they use your application, what information they need, when they need it, and how you will deliver it. The return on investment for developing the right kind of Online Help for your end users can be measured in fewer calls to technical support and more satisfied users.

Implementation decisions are influenced also by your schedule and budget because of the effort and planning involved in developing the various types of Help. Simple Online Help systems can be developed quickly and fairly easily using the right tools. However, realizing the full range of features available in Online Help systems requires extensive experience in the requisite design and development methodologies as well as the involvement of subject matter experts for the associated product or application.


1 Horn, Robert E. Information Design: Emergence of a New Profession. San Francisco: MIT Press, 1999.