Working with Programmers to Create Context-Sensitive Help

My main job, which I consider “real” technical writing, is creating the help that is installed with an application. Context-sensitive help (CSH) provides a better user experience than always opening an intro topic. That is, a user is trying to modify a site and isn’t sure what to type in a particular field, so he clicks Help. A help topic appears that describes exactly how to modify a site. That’s CSH; the topic appears based on the context in which the user clicked Help.

The developer/programmer can add “help hooks” and “help IDs” (code) into the code for the Help button. (He also has to add code to call the help—tell it which file to use for the help, what to display, blah, blah, blah, but I’m not a programmer.) So if the developer is creating a dialog box named New Site and adding a Help button, he might add a help hook named HIDD_NEW_SITE with an ID of 0x204FF*. When the developer is done coding, ready for QA to test the application, or the technical writer nags him that she needs the help hooks, he can export a file from his coding application with a .H, .HH, or .HM extension**. And with that, the developer’s contribution to the Help is complete–unless he made mistakes or forgot to add some help hooks. (Alternatively, the technical writer can define help hooks for each topic, create the .H, .HH, or .HM file, and send it to the developer to add to the code.)

When I’m writing new help topics or editing existing help topics, I install the latest build (in development) of the application on a virtual machine (VM) so I can write more intelligently about what it actually does when I click, right-click, and so on. In some ways, I’m doing “QA” on it and writing up bugs that I find, but I don’t do a formal QA. (We have smarter people than I to do that.) One of the things I do test for, however, is whether the help appears at all and, if so, if the topic is relevant (context-sensitive). I can tweak the CSH files to link a specific help hook to a different topic, if needed.

Often the name used for the help hook is not very intuitive (HIDD_AFTER_INSTALL7) , so I need to ask the developer which ID is assigned to which dialog box. First, I create a spreadsheet that lists the dialog box, the help hook, and the topic that I think should appear for that dialog box. (Remember, that the developer may not have ever seen the interface, just code and COM API interactions.) I then email the spreadsheet to the developer and ask him to fill in the blanks. Seems simple, right?

Sometimes a developer has no clue what I’m talking about, either because he’s never worked with CSH before, he didn’t read the email, or English is not his first language, and so he responds that the error is on my end. If this happens to you, use your “detail oriented” technical writing skills to verify that the following is true:

  • You have the correct help hooks file (.H, .HH, or .HM). On one project, we had 5 different HM files and I had no idea which one I was supposed to use, and neither did anyone else. (The most recent one? Not necessarily.) The fix for that is ask them to export a new one. If you already reference it in the help authoring tool, ask if they can name it the same, to make your life easier.
  • Each hook in the .H, .HH, or .HM file has “#define” and a space in front of it. Sometimes they don’t.
  • Your map file or alias file (the .ALI file) is formatted correctly and ALL of the correct hooks linked to relevant topics. (You don’t have to link every ID in the .H, .HH, or .HM file, just the ones that are assigned to Help buttons.)
  • The ALI and .H, .HH, or .HM file are properly referenced in the HHP file.

If you don’t edit the ALI file directly, but prefer to do it in RoboHelp, make sure RoboHelp still “sees” the hooks. When I copy and paste an updated version of the file into the project (overwriting the existing, same-named file), RoboHelp sometimes forgets it. I don’t know why. Of course, if this a new file, you have to import it–RoboHelp doesn’t know the file exists if you just paste it into the project. You must import it to add it to the project files.

After you’ve fixed your mistakes (or you’re positive you haven’t made any mistakes), generate the CHM again and paste into your VM with the latest build installed. (When you generate the help, you can view the log file to see if there are any errors that you can fix.) Test every Help button, using your spreadsheet as a reminder of which dialog boxes have Help buttons. You should test every button every time, because sometimes you break things unintentionally when you’re fixing other things! If you’ve decided everything is working on your end, ask/email the developer again, ask him to review your worksheet, and point out the exact help hook(s) that you believe are broken. (Developers are busy people and usually get paid a lot more than you do, so make it easy for him to scan the email to see what you’re asking him to do.)

Microsoft HTML Help Workshop (HHW.exe) is a utility to test that you have valid files. It’s an old app that Microsoft no longer updates, but it still does the job. In HHW, specify the CHM you want to test, then click Tools > HTMLHelp API. In the dialog box that appears, select HH_HELP_CONTEXT and then type in a map ID (decimal or hex works).  When you click OK, the topic that you want to appear for that map ID should appear. If the wrong one opens or nothing opens, you need to fix the .ALI file. If a message appears that says something like “HH_HELP_CONTEXT called without a [MAP] section” that means something is broken. (Duh.) You can decompile the CHM (in HTML Help Workshop) and see that there is, indeed, a [MAP] section, yet it doesn’t “see” it. Why not??

If you get that message, ensure that the .ALI and .H, .HH, or .HM are properly referenced in the .HHP file. Computers aren’t very smart—you make one mistake and they get confused! (One time I had to generate WebHelp, before the HHP file would update. I wasn’t about to manually add a bunch of files! I do merged helpsets, so I need a valid HHP for that.)

This is important to understand: if your CHM works in HTML Help Workshop, that does NOT mean that it works in the application! All it means is that the .ALI file and CHM are properly formatted and a topic opens when you provide the hook. Period. For example, you could have two of the help hooks reversed or wrong topics referenced, but the CHM will still “work” in HHW. The only way to be sure your CHM works in the application is to paste it into the installation folder (or wherever the existing CHM is stored), and then try it in the application. Your application will have to be closed to do this; otherwise, you’re trying to overwrite a file that is in use.  In my last experience with “broken” CSH, the developer had forgotten to add hooks to the dialog boxes that didn’t open the correct help. He kept insisting that the CHM worked for him. After three emails asking him to please test it in the application, not in HHW, he finally accepted that it was broken in his code.

Usually the application is coded such that if a user clicks a Help button and there is no help ID assigned to it, the default help topic (e.g., Intro) will appear. So when that happens in my testing, that’s a pretty good clue that either there is no help hook or I didn’t add it to the ALI file. Don’t let the developer intimidate you. You might be doing something wrong, but if all he tells you is that the problem isn’t in his code (rather then telling you specifically what is wrong with yours), ask for more information. He should be able to tell you, “When I click the Help button on the New Site dialog box, this ID is triggered, but the CHM is opening the Intro topic.” You can then verify that the ID is in your ALI file and linked to the topic that you want to open. (If he had looked at your spreadsheet, he would have seen which IDs you were using for each Help button.) Of course, if release is happening soon, opening the Intro topic is better than having no help at all!

*Help hooks in the app are in hexadecimal (0x204FF). Help authoring apps like RoboHelp list them in decimal. If you want to convert the hex number to decimal, open Windows Calculator (click Start, then type calc.exe), click View >Programmer, type the hex number, then click Decimal. The number is converted to decimal.

**In this article, I’m talking about Microsoft HTML Help (CHM). The basic process is similar, but in JavaHelp (JH), the map file is simply called a “map file”–imagine that!–and it’s formatted slightly differently. This is how I learned how to write JH: http://shop.oreilly.com/product/9781565927193.do. I highly recommend buying the book (because knowing how JH works will help you fix it when it doesn’t work!), but this page  gives you the general idea if you just need a refresher: http://oreilly.com/catalog/creatingjavahelp/chapter/ch05.html

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s