Using a wiki for online help
Posted by Sarah Maddox
Online help — it’s a technical writer’s dream. We all want to design and write online help systems, and we all know that context-sensitive help is the way to go. Can you do it on a wiki?
Yes 🙂 I wrote an article on the Atlassian News site this week, illustrating how we’ve used our Confluence wiki to provide context-sensitive help in the latest FishEye and Crucible software releases. Have a read. It’s got some pretty pictures as well as the technical stuff 😉
Clarifying my terminology: By ‘context-sensitive help’, I mean that when you click a help link on an application screen, you get the instructions directly related to that particular screen. Also at a deeper level, when you click a help icon next to a field you get help on that specific field. We’ve provided both these levels of help, as described in the above article. Another type of contextual help is when you hover your mouse over a field and a short description pops up in a kind of bubble. That’s usually called a ‘tool tip’, and is not what I mean here.
I’ve written a number of online help systems for various companies, using a variety of tools. My favourites were Help and Manual and RoboHelp. I’ve also dabbled with HDK (the precursor to XDK) and with Microsoft’s ‘raw’ HTML Help editor. And now I’m using Confluence wiki.
What’s the difference between a wiki and a help authoring tool? Well, there’s a big difference, of course. A wiki is essentially a collaboration platform — your online documents become a place where everyone goes to find information, share their own tips with others, and pick up the latest updates. A help authoring tool is tailored towards building a documentation set which is essentially static (even if you update it every day, it’s still not a discussion platform) but which has all the bells and whistles of an integrated online help system.
Most help authoring tools provide the following functions. You’ll probably have trouble finding a wiki which supplies these functions to the same degree:
- Fully customisable table of contents, where you can put topics in the order you want, omit topics, or make a single topic appear more than once.
- Integrated keyword index.
- Integrated glossary.
- Navigational tools to make topic browsing easier, such as the ‘browse sequences’ provided by RoboHelp.
- Topic linkage tools, such as the ‘next topic’, ‘previous topic’ and ‘related topics’ tools which are built into some help authoring tools.
- Generation of HTML Help (.chm) and WinHelp output files.
- Workflow support (draft, review, publish).
- Integration with a source control tool such as VSS, or RoboHelp’s inbuilt check-in check-out manager.
- Automatic generation of topic IDs, which you can hand over to a developer for plugging into the code to generate context-sensitive help links.
- Sophisticated topic templates.
- A wiki page is just a URL — so you can link to the page directly from your application screen. (Read my Atlassian News blog to see how we’re doing it with Confluence.)
- Wiki pages are continuously being updated and enhanced by technical writers, support staff and even customers who have useful tips to share. So when someone clicks the help link, they get the most up-to-the minute information possible.
- Wikis allow you to embed multimedia goodies such as images and Flash movies.
- You should be able to generate PDF, HTML and XML versions of your wiki pages.
- A good wiki has a good search engine.
- Some wikis provide version control — all changes are tracked, and you can see who made each change or even revert to a previous version of a page.
- A wiki often provides tools for runtime integration with other software — many wikis allow you to install plugins or addons which display information directly from another platform. For example, a wiki page can show a list of bug fixes drawn dynamically from an issue tracking system like JIRA.
- Some wikis allow blogging as part of the wiki platform. So your documentation page can embed a list of the latest blog posts related to the topic of the page. The blog posts will always be the most recent as at the time the user views the wiki page.
- Your wiki is sure to have a number of other interesting features which you can use to work around some of the shortfalls listed above. If you’re interested, take a look at my previous posts on using wikis for technical documentation.
In short, wikis are different. They’re not necessarily better or worse — it depends what you need for your documentation system. Wikis are fairly new, so they’re developing all the time. I’m having fun riding the wave 🙂
About Sarah MaddoxTechnical writer, author and blogger in Sydney
Posted on 15 December 2007, in atlassian, Confluence, online help, technical writing, wiki and tagged atlassian, Confluence, contextual help, documentation, help authoring tools, online help, technical documentation, technical writing, wiki, wikis. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.