Jumps, Popups, DHTML, and Snippets

This is part of the Help Authoring Tips series.

There are many options for presenting additional information in a help system. In the olden days, you created information and then you added a hyperlink or a popup. Today, with current help authoring tools, there are so many more options. Here’s a brief review of some of them.

Jump/hypertext link: This takes the reader from one location to another. Typically, it offers expanded or related information. These are very useful when you want to give someone an overview of a general topic. In this case, you list each of the general elements or steps in a bulleted list. The user can click the hyperlink to go to another topic for more information on a particular element, or review the list for a basic outline. The important thing to remember when offering a hyperlink to a user is that you are offering them the opportunity to change their focus (for the good and the bad).

Popup: A popup is information that is contained in a second window that opens when a user clicks on a link. Typically, a small amount of information, an image, a definition, etc. is featured in the window. The advantage of using a popup is that it keeps the reader focused on this topic; the disadvantage is that it does not print when the user wants to print the contents of a page.

Expanding hotspots: These are hotspots that open a short amount of text next to a word. Often used for a description of explanation, this functionality requires ActiveX and may not work on all browsers. And, when it doesn’t work the results can be messy – leaving the text of the description unmarked and within the sentence. One workaround for this would be to get in the habit of putting this text inside parenthesis.

Dropdown hotspots: I like these! This allows you to give formatted text below a line of text. For example, this is an ideal format for FAQs. Each question is listed. Users click on a question that interests them and the answer expands below the question. One advantage to this format is that users can expand all the questions and then print them. This is great for any topic where you have many parts or individual items and you want to show your end user all of them. So, as they view this, all they see initially are the questions or listed items. This is ideal for troubleshooting sections, error messages with explanations, etc. etc.

Snippets: These are chunks of text – fully formatted and easily inserted anywhere in the file – typically in multiple places. The advantage of a snippet is that while you can easily insert it in many places, you only need to edit it in one place. Snippets can be used for a note that needs to be repeated in many places. It can also be used for an element in a procedure that is performed in many other procedures. The possibilities for its use are endless – it’s a great function for help authors and it is completely transparent to end-users!

So, in conclusion – what kind of hotspot or jump should you use to give your user information – the answer, as is often the case in technical writing (and in life), is that it depends on what you are trying to accomplish!