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Creating Online Help for Your Course
What is Online Help?

Online Help provides information about the product components and usage to users in an easy manner. For example, it may provide help on installing an application, using different components of the application, and performing different tasks with the application. It may also provide help on syntax and different parameters. In case of an online course, the online help may introduce the learners to different types of screens in the course, navigation features, assessment techniques, learning aids, and options for specifying user preferences.

Why Go Online?

The three factors that have resulted in an online delivery of the help rather than producing printed help documents are the need for universal distribution, new technologies, and cost. Often, clients require both online and paper-based help documentation. Therefore, you must take this consideration into account when developing an online help system.

Tools for Developing Online Help

You can use the following tools for developing online help systems.

  • Adobe Acrobat
  • WinHelp
  • HTML
  • HTMLHelp
  • NetHelp
  • JavaHelp
Adobe Acrobat

Adobe Acrobat provides a display-oriented solution based on Portable Document Format (PDF).. PDF file format is considered to be the de facto standard for electronic distribution of documents. You can distribute PDF files globally via e-mail, corporate intranets, the Web, or CD-ROM. This is because the PDF file format retains the fonts, graphics, and the layout of the source document, irrespective of the application or the platform used to create the document. Therefore, you can easily use Acrobat in developing page-oriented material like brochures, technical documents, and graphic-intensive documents. You can use the PDF files to streamline document management, increase productivity, and reduce reliance on paper-based documents.

PDF files can be easily viewed and printed one page at a time. You can download the free Acrobat Reader software to share, view, or print PDF files. You can use the navigation and zoom features of Acrobat Reader to closely review the text and images in the PDF file, even when you open the file in your browser. You can create a PDF file using the “Print to file” option in any document-creation software, such as MS Word, PageMaker, or any publishing tool.

You can add annotations, live forms, video, sound, and security options to your PDF files for enhanced online viewing. You can hyperlink and cross-reference Acrobat documents to support both internal and external document links and searching within a document.

One limitation of Acrobat is its inability to easily integrate external programs such as testing and tracking.


WinHelp is the online Help standard, the native help compiler, and run-time engine shipped with Microsoft Windows. It is based on Rich Text Format (RTF) and is a commonly used online documentation tool that can be used for publishing both paper-based and online documents.

You can use WinHelp documents to exploit a full range of hypertext capabilities, including hyperlinks, popups, hot spot graphics, and searching. However, unlike Acrobat, WinHelp is not a page-oriented help system. Like Acrobat, WinHelp cannot be used to integrate external programs such as testing and tracking.


Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) is the native document format of the World Wide Web and is greatly network-oriented. HTML documents are hosted on a Web server for use. Therefore, HTML documents are an excellent choice for providing interactive capabilities, such as hyperlinking, cross-referencing, and search. You can also use HTML documents for sophisticated testing, tracking, and assessment.

You can easily convert MS Word documents into HTML files. However, HTML documents are browser-dependent and may display differently in Netscape and Internet Explorer.

HTMLHelp and NetHelp

Microsoft and Netscape have come out with different standards for HTML-based help systems. These standards are HTMLHelp and NetHelp, respectively. Both these standards can help you enhance the usability of online documentation systems.

HTMLHelp is the new Help standard for the Windows 98 and 2000 platforms. It integrates HTML with advanced ActiveX technology to provide enhanced online help features.

NetHelp is an open standards-based platform for creating and viewing HTML-based online help. You can use it to provide context-sensitive help for any Web-based application or a native Windows, Unix, or Mac program. Additionally, it provides cross-platform support. Therefore, you can easily use a help system created for an operating system on any other operating system without recompiling the help system.


JavaHelp is a platform and browser-independent help system for delivering online help for applications written in Java. In order to view a JavaHelp help system, users must have the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) installed on their system. As JavaHelp help system is platform and browser-independent, it is ideal for developing online documentation for the Web and corporate intranet.

You can deliver JavaHelp help system as a collection of individual files, or compress the files into a Java Archive (JAR) file. JavaHelp can be developed using a variety of tools such as RoboHelp, WebWorks Publisher, Doc-To-Help, and ForeHelp.

JavaHelp can be used to incorporate online help in applets, components, applications, operating systems, and devices. It provides the flexibility and ease in developing custom user interfaces and functionality. For example, you can either display JavaHelp system in a separate window or display it in an application. You can also add customized navigational controls to your help using JavaHelp.

JavaHelp is network-oriented. Therefore, help data and functionality can reside on either the client-side or server-side. It also allows for dynamic update of help data and new functionality over the Web.

Process of Creating Online Help

You follow the given steps in creating any online help.

1. Identify Content Types

First, you need to determine the various categories of information and help that users will need, for example, processes and procedures, product installation and description, background or reference information, definitions, samples, and demonstrations.

2. Perform Task Analysis

You should develop a detailed list of all the tasks that users need to perform to accomplish a specific job and the information they would need to complete those tasks. You can develop this list by working with a set of typical users and the application being documented. This helps you prepare a detailed outline of the help system.

3. Establish Content Structure

It is important to define a consistent format and structure the available content for both the online or printed documentation of your help system. Defining a format and structure helps users to locate the required information easily. A structured approach also ensures that you have covered all the necessary information related to each topic.

4. Develop Access Interfaces for Different Content Types

You should carefully consider all different ways using which a user can search for a particular type of content. For example, you should ideally display definition of important terms in popup windows and also include such terms in glossary definitions.

5. Develop and Test Working Models

You should create working models of each information category in the help system, including the job aids. You should, then, test these models with users to determine the effectiveness of the structure, format, and level of information provided in the help system. You might need to conduct several rounds of testing and refinements before you finalize your working models.

6. Integrate and Verify the Help System

After finalizing the working models of your help system, you need to integrate them into the help system and run the complete help system to verify its functionality.

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