Designing Help Topics

Whether you are creating a help system or a Web site, the basic building block for all your help content is the Hypertext Markup Language (.htm, .html) file. You use HTML files to create your help topics and Web pages. The process you use to create a new HTML file is the same no matter what its purpose. The design you choose for each type of topic, however, will vary depending on its purpose.

No matter what type of topic you are creating, there are many ways to create lively and interesting files. You can add images, text, animation, and sound to your topics. You can add forms, tables, frames, e-mail, or custom scripts. You can add the HTML Help ActiveX controlto your documents to provide a table of contents, an index, or related topics. Or, you can add a splash screen, a pop-up window, a shortcut button, or other command.

You may want to include one or more home pages in your help system or Web site. Because a home page provides the first interaction a user has with your help system or Web site, designing it is one of the most important things you will do.

You want your home page to communicate what your information is about and why it exists. It should also be a jumping-off point to the rest of your system. A user should be able to navigate quickly from your home page to any page in your system, either directly or through other topics.

You will also want to make your help system or Web pages accessible to users with disabilities. The Accessibility Word List will help get you started. Additional information on developing accessible software, web site designs, and recommendations on making HTML content more accessible is also available from the Microsoft Accessibility and Disabilities Web site.

If you are designing topics to be shipped with a program, you may have greater concerns about file size. You can limit art and multimedia content in your help system to reduce the file size.

If you are planning to distribute your help topics over the Web, file size may not be a design consideration. However, if you include a lot of multimedia in your topics, consider the amount of time it will take for a user to download your files.

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