SHO for guided help

“Guided help” – that’s when you actually do the task you need to do, and some helpful bubbles or other UI prompts tell you what to do next. You’re not reading documentation, reading help or watching a video. You’re not working on a sandbox or a test site. You are actually getting the job done and learning at the same time.

I’ve recently tried SHO Guide, a tool for creating guided help scripts. It was a lot of fun and a very worthwhile experiment.

In a nutshell, this is what happens: Using SHO Guide, you write scripts and publish them. This produces a “.sho” file for each script. Your customers then use SHO Player (freely downloadable) to play the script. It hooks into the UI of your application and guides them through the steps they need to take.

First impressions

SHO Player is a quick download (1.3 MB). Installation is painless (apart from the usual chattiness from my Windows Vista OS). SHO Guide is a longer download (60 MB).

When you get your SHO Guide licence key, username and password, you also gain access to the “Resources” part of the SHO web site. This has plenty of tutorials, FAQ, a support forum and information about training. The Quick Start tutorial is very good. Fast, with just the right amount of information to get you started. It guides you through creating a SHO script for Notepad.

Creating scripts with SHO Guide

You can record a series of steps, by clicking the “Record” button in SHO Guide and then performing the steps in the application you’re documenting. Then you can go back later to edit, insert or delete steps as required. This is very useful.

The SHO Guide authoring environment has a familiar look and feel to people who have used various types of authoring tools:

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

(Click the image to expand it.)

On the left of the above screenshot are the two scripts I’ve created, called “Create a space” and “View all blog posts”. Underneath the scripts are two more segments, hidden at the moment, where you can access extra step types and a library of images and other resources. In the middle is the bubble that the users will see, with various options for you to create conditional paths, filters and actions. It doesn’t take long before you know what’s what and where to find it.

The easiest way to start a script is to record it. Here’s a screenshot showing a recording in action:

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

In the above screenshot, I’m recording an activity on the Confluence dashboard, running in Internet Explorer. The red square shows the UI element that is currently in focus. At the bottom of the screen is the SHO Guide recorder panel, showing the key presses already recorded.  The icon of a video camera at far right means that the recording mode is active and ready for input. The icon changes to a hand when the recording is paused or busy.

Hint: It can take a while to save a recorded action. Wait until the hand changes back to a video camera before continuing with the next click or exiting from SHO Guide, otherwise your clicks may not be recorded.

The end result

Here’s a screenshot showing the starter bubble of a script I created for Confluence, helping people to create a wiki space:

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

The problem: You’re new to Confluence, or to another Atlassian application. You have to get something done, and you’ve no idea where to start. You’re panicking. You’re in a hurry. The UI is not helping, because it assumes at least a bit of knowledge. Atlassian, WTF??

The solution: Atlassian WTF!! The Atlassian Webapp Tutorial Fantastique. 😉

Curious about the fairy in the bubble? She’s the Atlassian Webapp Tutorial Fairy, of course. She’s also a photograph of my earring. You can add images, videos and documents to your SHO scripts.

Here are a couple more screenshots of the same script in action:

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

So the user would click the “Create a space” link, as prompted by the green bubble. Confluence then opens the “Create Space” screen and SHO supplies the next bubble, prompting them to enter the space name.

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

In the screenshot below, see how you can present a choice of paths to the user. In this case, the “Do It For Me” option launches a set of automated steps — another cool feature of SHO.

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

The user also has the SHO Player toolbar, allowing them to pause or stop the script:

SHO for guided help

SHO for guided help

Want to see and read more?

Experimenting with and evaluating SHO was my Atlassian FedEx Day project. There are more screenshots in my FedEx 12 delivery note, as well as some notes about the requirements and limitations of the tool. What on earth is FedEx Day, you ask? It’s a period of 24 hours when Atlassians get to do something totally different from our normal day-to-day job, then present our findings to the rest of the company. It’s pretty cool. I wrote about it last week.

Wrapping it up

This was my first foray into guided help and into SHO. A big thank you to Matthew Ellison for mentioning SHO in his presentation on context-sensitive help at AODC 2009. (I wrote about it too.)

BTW, this was just an experiment. The scripts aren’t by any means production ready.

I haven’t had time to investigate SHO in detail. There are many possibilities, such as including sound, video and documents into your scripts, adding specific action types, trapping errors issued by the app, and so on. SHO Guide is easy to download and you can evaluate it for free for two weeks. The Transcensus guys, makers of SHO, have been very friendly and free with offers of help and discussion. Definitely worth a try. Fun too. That’s what it’s all about, huh.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 25 August 2009, in atlassian, online help, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I must say that I was pretty impressed when I saw this in action. The concept is fantastic, although the software is a little rough around edges.

    If implemented properly, this could be a fantastic complement to user documentation.

  2. Hallo Andrew

    Great to hear from you 🙂 I agree 100% — with a bit of work, these scripts would be an awesome user assistance tool. For us, the current restriction to IE is a problem. More than 50% of our customers use Firefox or Safari.

    That said, a number of people have come up to me and remarked on the usefulness, simplicity and originality of the concept. Great work, Transcensus!


  3. This is a great discovery for me, thanks for bringing it to my attention! Like your other commenters I agree that there are currently some limitations. I did some limited testing and managed to break it. The UI for the software I’m documenting can be customised by the user, so I’m not sure how well the SHO software will cope with this.
    Good blog 🙂

    • Hallo Haitham
      I’m so glad you tried it out and enjoyed the discovery. Awesome!

      Yes, it is fairly easy to break the software. I’m thinking, though, that if I did more training and more investigation, I could greatly improve a script’s robustness by adding error traps, and actions that cause the script to pause and tell the user to do something when the required UI item is not found. For example, I did manage to put an action into the “Initialise” step, to cause the script to automatically start up the required app if not already there. Transcensus does offer a lot of training for script authors, so that would be worth investigating. There are a lot of options in the authoring tool, so there are probably a lot of best practices to make robust scripts.

      Thanks for the nice words 🙂

  4. Impressive. But one potetntial drawback that might be worth mentioning – the cost.

    16,995 USD for a pair of licences (admittedly including support, training and some consultancy).

  5. Thanks for the great review. This is a really interesting product, and perhaps an indication of some new future trends in technical writing.

    I’ll have to give the demo a whirl. 🙂

  6. Just saw this. It reminded me immediately of a much-maligned technology, namely the Office Assistant, most often characterized as Clippy.

    I was peripherally involved on the Microsoft Bob team that was designing what they termed “agent” technology. The idea was very much as you have here — software that observes what you are doing and attempts to guide you in real time toward a solution. Altho the design was evolving (and did not reach fruition, obviously) an idea was that the agent technology might observe you doing something and, for example, after you’d done something 3x one way, it might suggest a more efficient way.

    One thing that was never resolved AFAIK was whether the voice (in Bob and then later, unfortunately manifested as a cartoon character) was the process (computer) itself or whether it was an agent that interacted with you on the process’s behalf. Clippy was the latter; the search dog was an example of the former (where the dog was seen to be actually doing the searching).

    Anyway, an interesting idea all around. However, it’s very difficult to implement fully, and people have quite varying reactions to it; a surprising number of folks see as it intrusive help. (I feel that way sometimes even about IntelliSense when I’m coding.)

  7. Hallo Mike
    Thanks, that’s an interesting comment. I’m one of those people who got intensely annoyed by Clippy. But I rather like the cute little Search puppy, because he’s not nearly as intrusive. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I’d notice if he wasn’t there. Yes, it’s very difficult to design something that everyone will like.

    Heh heh, I had a look at your blog and found the post where you experimented with using IntelliSense instead of the documentation. It looks as if it took a while. I wonder how much shorter the process would have been if you’d had good docs instead. At least you got a good sense of satisfaction from solving the problems yourself!

    I guess the key is in allowing people to turn off the help when they don’t need it, and to present it to them initially in a way that intrudes only enough to make sure they see it. Let’s go knocking on our UI designers’ doors. 🙂

  8. Hi Folks,

    I’m a user of Captivate and when I saw the Transcensus demos and the ShoGuide description, I really thought that yes, this is a way to avoid the big EXE file sizes.

    It feels exactly right.

    As soon as I saw the price though, I realised that no matter how good the s/w is, I cannot seriously approach my Product Development Manager for software capital at this price level.

    I’m hoping that ShoGuide Lite or similar will be available in the future, with limited feature or longer time-limited usage below say, $1,100.

  9. Hello- I am on a hunt! I’ve been investigating various EPSS type solutions and am just at the end of my 2-week trial of SHO Guide. After completing all of the online tutorials I can definitely see potential here but I have some concerns about Transcensus and the health of this company.

    First of all, no one has attempted to contact me since I registered for the trial (very suspicious!). I sent an inquiry about their pricing structure a couple of weeks ago and have received no reply. (I swear their published price jumped significantly recently. I seem to recall visiting their site last spring and I thought the price was more in the $3,000 range.) Their web-site seems a bit outdated and any news articles I find online seem to be a least a couple of years old. Plus, this morning I found a scathing blog entry from a very unhappy ex-employee claiming that they owe him a lot of money as a result of forcing all of their employees to take a 50% pay cut last January. (According to him, they received stock options in lieu of the salary, but he never got his.)

    Anyway, I am not trying to stir anything up or start rumors, I just don’t want to convince my management to spend this type of money on a product then have the company turn around and disappear. Does anyone know anybody who has actually purchased the software or know any thing more about the company?

  10. Hallo Donna

    To a certain extent, I share your concern. When I first started evaluating SHO Guide, I found the company fairly unresponsive and it was a fairly complex procedure to join the forum.

    But quite soon (after a week or so), two of the Transcensus guys started corresponding with me and were thereafter very interested in what I was doing and keen to offer support.

    More recently, I’ve sent them two emails letting them know about the comments on this blog post and asking if they would like to respond. I’m hoping they’ll drop a comment here in answer to your concerns and to the earlier comments about the product pricing.

    Thanks for adding this important aspect to the blog post.


  11. I used to work for Transcensus (makers of SHO Guide) and I can tell you that these guys will work with you if you will take the time to learn the product.

    It is truly an amazing product and I plan to use it on my new Time and Attendance application I’m releasing in January.

    As for price, I would check that out with them again… I don’t think it’s as high as stated here.

  12. From what I’m gathering in this post, many people like the idea. If that’s the case, haven’t very many people in the instructional design communities heard about this? Why isn’t it as popular as Camtasia, Captivate and other products that don’t do as much as SHO Guide?

    Does it come down to the price and the slow response of the organization?

  13. It seems that Transcensus is out of business or something. I can’t get to any of their websites or links.
    I did however encounter this tool:, I couldn’t evaluate their ( authoring environment (yet) but it seems as cool.
    Too bad end users need to have a player, but in my organization it is not an issue.

    • Thanks for the links! Leo looks very nice. An appealing and snappy interface. I’d love to hear what you think of the development environment, if you do get a chance to try it.
      Cheers, Sarah

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