Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Future of the Online Help Interface?

Thanks to Trevor W. for raising an interesting question after I presented a Dec. 11 webinar for #MadCap on the design challenges in converting traditional online help to mobile format…
The question:

With newer, touch-screen optimized operating systems like Windows 8 (and Apple’s Mountain Lion to some extent), and the merging of form factors--laptops and tablets (like MS Surface) --do you see a move away from more traditional online help layouts and towards a mobile-style layout for all platforms, including desktops? By mobile-style, I mean something that looks like your *** app with icons, rather than a stock mobile output…
My initial answer:

The short and honest answer is that I don't know.
The more useful answer is that our interface designs are evolving based on a number of factors including user age, expectations, screen size, and nature of the material and its application. Some specifics:

- User age - The de facto attitude is that the younger the user, the more comfortable they are with online material presented in a smartphone style - e.g. icons, cool colors, etc. It's not a bad way to think. Just as we went from the bland, gray look of the old HTML Help (CHM) output to the more tailorable browser-based WebHelp, and now HTML5, we're now going to the still more colorful smartphone style. My concern in this trend, however, is the risk of trying to force all material to fit into that style, as I said repeatedly during the webinar. I'm not sure that a guide to concrete mix standards would be appropriate in the same style as Angry Birds, but I expect to see someone try it.

- Expectations - Similar to my previous point but with the added points that we're providing less information as we expect users to be more up on things related to what we're documenting. For example, in the '90s, I wrote a lot of PC user guides and always included sections on the disk drives, how to use a mouse, etc. We don't do that anymore because we expect users to know those things. Companies are also reducing the amount of background material in their doc on the grounds that "if you don't know what a receivable is, you shouldn't be using our accounting software at all". That shortening of content makes sense but can be taken too far.
- Screen size - There's a lot as to what you can do with such a tiny screen. The best thing, in my opinion, would be some sort of gesture or head-movement navigation coupled with a predictive agent, but the attempts to date - BOB and Clippy - haven't been very successful.

- Nature and application of the material - An online help system for an accounting software package calls for different help than does Fruit Ninja, obviously, but the question is whether we make each help system look consistent with its application or with the platform on which the application runs.
I don’t know where I’ll go with this response but I’m interested in people’s thoughts…

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Solution to XREF Format Problem in Flare

To the Flare class attendees who saw me demo the change in format of a cross-reference - to have it use hyperlink format for an online output but automatically convert to a page reference format for a print output like PDF - only to have it not work. I said I'd track down the problem and post the result on my blog.

It didn't work because I made the change correctly in the Print medium of the ws_ftp_styles.css file but forgot to specify that CSS for the output - e.g. I left the Master Stylesheet field on the General tab of the Target Editor set to Default rather than changing it to ws_ftp_styles.css. As soon as I changed the Master Stylesheet field to ws_ftp_styles.css and regenerated the PDF, the automatic conversion to a page reference format worked like a charm.

It's always that one little thing that you overlook...


Friday, July 20, 2012

Responses to Questions From My "Four Paths to Mobile With Flare" Presentation

Thomas Z

Q: If I make a medium for another output is the second medium styles saved in the existing CSS style sheet?
A: Yes, they’re saved in the CSS under a section header that looks like @media... For example, all the custom settings that I made for my mobile medium are saved in the CSS under the heading @media mobile. That section and its first style entry look like this:

@media mobile
                        font-size: 12pt;
                        color: #1e90ff;

…plus any additional settings.

Craig P

Q: Do you do any kind of CSS reset for your projects?
A: I haven’t had the need to but it’s one of those things that’s on the horizon. (If you’re not sure what a reset is, try this article -

Q: Mediums know mobile versus print, etc. How might screen size be handled?
A: The next step after mediums, officially called “media types” by the W3C, is “media queries”, also from the W3C, where you can actually set properties like screen size and related actions – e.g. “if screen size > 300 and < 600, do X…” kind of thing. If media queries aren’t near the top of the priority list for Flare 9, I’ll be shocked.

Q: What's the name of the first CSS book you mentioned? Authors?
A: “Cascading Style Sheets:Designing for the Web (3rd Edition) by Lie and Bos. It’s not fully up to date as it was published in 2005 but, IMO, is the clearest book you’ll find on the subject and the best way to get the basics. Then plan to go online to read up on CSS3 and media queries and all the newer stuff.

Heather J

Q: It looks like you couldn't really display help along with the application. Do you see downsides to that?
A: There’s obviously a downside but that that’s only true if a given device won’t multi-task, in which case the help may have to be embedded in the application. Depending on what you’re writing help for, you may also be able to use Flare to create a WebHelp Mobile output and tie it “context-sensitively” to an app. I did this using a native app authoring tool called ViziApps, the one I mentioned, and Flare, and wrote a white paper about the process for MadCap last summer. I can send you a copy if you’d like. Let me know.

Sue A

Q: Could you have two mediums for mobile - phone and tablet? How do you add a medium?
A: You can have as many mediums as you want. (But remember that mediums let you set style properties but not adapt the content to the device size. For that, you want to get up to speed on media queries – see above.) To add a medium, open the Stylesheet Editor, click the Options pulldown on the right end of the Stylesheet Editor toolbar, select Add Medium, and name the thing. Select the desired medium using the Medium pulldown on the Stylesheet Editor toolbar. You can’t delete a medium via Flare’s interface. You have to open the CSS file and find and delete everything under the "@media mediumname" heading. It’s not a major problem but is inconsistent. I expect this to be corrected in Flare 9.

David W

Q: What do you recommend doing with tables in phone form factor and does CSS handle it?
A: That’s a tough one. First, I’d try to simplify my tables way down and conditionalize them for mobile output. Second, I’d grudgingly accept the fact that some tables are wide and have to be scrolled, just as I accept the fact that I sometimes find a landscape-formatted page in a printed book and have to turn the book sideways to read it. CSS does handle tables but it depends heavily on how well the device standard itself handles tables. For example, ePub doesn’t do a particularly good job, in my experience, with any table more complex than simple rows and columns. But check the particular standard you’re using.
Stephanie L

Q: how do I add a back button to my web mobile output?
A: Take a look at the Back and Forward “buttons” at the bottom of the canvas on the WebHelp Mobile emulator. Those act like the equivalent buttons on a browser toolbar. Let me know if you had something else in mind.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Answers to Questions From CSS Class at nSight on June 28

Here, a day late, are the answers to the questions from last week’s CSS class.

Re adding a non-scrolling region in a topic to create a non-scrolling table row to make sure the column heads for a long table remain visible as users scroll the table. What you do is create a non-scrolling region at the top of the topic (which would normally contain the topic title) and put the table row containing the column heads in that non-scrolling region. See the instructions at Mike Hamilton’s blog – see and scroll down until you see the post entitled Adding Non-Scrolling Regions to Flare Topics. This works, but only if the table is at the top of the topic. If the table is further down, this won’t work since you can’t have a non-scrolling region within the body of a topic. However, you could put the tables in separate topics and link to them, in which case the column heads would be at the top of the topic. However, you’d have to do this consistently, or else label what you’re doing, to make sure that users don’t get confused as to why some tables are visible in the topic they’re reading but others are only available via a jump link.

Re Flare not showing style property changes in the Stylesheet Editor but showing them in the topics that use that style sheet? This may have been a one-time error as it seems to be working correctly now. If it happens to you again, either contact tech support or contact me directly and I’ll follow up for you.

Re where Flare puts a sub-class of an a tag, like my “littlepopup” example? It apparently does put it under the a tag rather than under the popup sub-class. It’s been almost five years since I created the custom popup tags, so my memory of where Flare put those sub-classes may simply have been incorrect.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Unofficial iPhone App for the STC ’12 Summit

Going to the Summit? (Or even if you’re not but want to get a feel for a conference-oriented app…)

Here’s a free iPhone app that will help you enjoy the Summit and illustrates some features that apps can provide. It also shows how GUI native app tools speed up and simplify authoring. I created this app using ViziApps (, one of the most flexible GUI app tools and one of the tools I’ll show in my Lightning Talk.

The STC ’12 Summit app lets you…

·    Get a list of Rosemont restaurants, and add your own entry to the list (for a social media element).

·    Take and annotate photos and add them to a public database.

·    Watch training or other videos, in this case an entertaining example from YouTube.

·    Check conference session times.

·    Send emails or SMS.

·    And more…

All this took under 40 hours to create, much faster – and cheaper – than working in code. It’s a powerful demonstration of how GUI authoring can bring mobile apps within any company’s reach. And ViziApps also supports native Android and iPad apps, plus web apps for RIM and Windows Mobile, and will soon support hybrid apps as well.

To try the app:

·    Install the free ViziApps app from the App Store on any iOS5 iPhone.

·    Start the app and log in under the username and password hwsdemo.

Want more information? Contact  or see me in Rosemont.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Responses to Questions From My "Flare As a CMS" Webinar

Q: Is Salesforce considered MS SCC compliant? [Mark S]

I don’t know, but that should be easy to answer. Let me know if you weren’t able to find out and I’ll look into it. (I hate saying “I don’t know.”)

Q: Neil, can the default location of Flare templates be remapped, i.e. not under Documents and Settings or Users but rather in some other read/writeable directory structure? [Craig P]

You can put them anywhere you want, as far as I know, but be sure to document where you put them for the benefit of developers who come on the project later and are accustomed to Flare’s default settings.

Q: In Flare, can I create "snippet templates" versus topic templates? [Albert N]

Yes. Flare’s “elements” – topics, snippets, variables, etc., are almost all based on templates. In most cases, the out-of-the-box templates should meet your needs but there may be cases, such as topics, where the out-of-the-box templates don’t meet your needs. In such cases, you can create your own templates and base new elements on your custom templates. Snippets are one such element.

Q: I've been unable to get Flare to bind to SVN or Perforce - only Team Foundation Server. Are the specific API tweaks that must be made in order for Flare to bind to those SCMs? Also, are there plans on supporting GIT?[Tony B]

I’m not sure why Flare won’t bind to either tool, so I’d go straight to tech support if you have a support plan. I don’t know of any plans to support GIT. Call support or sales and ask. Sorry…

Q: how well are Word tables imported into Flare?[Elizabeth W M}

Subject to what the original author did to the table, especially if it was created in Word where anything goes, my experience is that Flare imports Word tables well overall. It also lets you create table stylesheets and, in Flare 7 and 8, automatically apply the table stylesheet to all the tables in the project IF you have one type of table. (If you have more than one type of table and table stylesheet, you can’t automatically apply the table stylesheets since Flare can’t tell which one to apply to which table. Hopefully that will change in a future release.) If a table stylesheet doesn’t seem to work in a table, it’s invariably because of local formatting in the table. You can turn this off using the Reset Local Cell Formatting option and, in Flare 7 and 8, do so automatically for all tables in the project.

Q: Flare can "import" any human-readable file, e.g. TXT.[Craig P]

No and yes. It can’t import a PDF, for example, or more specialized file types, like BTW. However, most current tools offer the ability to save whatever proprietary format they create to HTML or XHTML so, if you do that, the answer is yes.

Q: You might mention element locking for security.[Ken B]

Good point. I’ll bear that in mind if I give this presentation again. Thanks.

Q: Tell us about your "standard control files" you use before starting a project.[Craig P]

At a minimum, I recommend that people create a CSS, the smallest possible number of table CSSs, and the smallest possible number of topic type templates – e.g. a concept topic template, a procedure topic template, etc – AND add the topic templates into the Flare interface by using the Template Manager. I also recommend designing other supporting files, such as a master page (or multiple master pages) and/or a page layout, decide whether you want to use links or cross-references and set the appropriate naming conventions, decide whether to use conditions and, if so, set naming and usage conventions to reduce the risk of these spinning out of control, the types of links that you’ll use based on a combination of the desired “cool” factor and how those links will work across different outputs. Finally, determine if you want to use a master CSS and if you want to use the project link feature in order to set up a central project that contains these control files and let everyone else link to that project. Finally, for a new project, start to document the project settings with the goal of finishing that documentation at the end of the project so that you or the next developer will have a reference to help get up to speed when it’s time to update the project. Basically, you’re setting the smallest possible number of control files, centralizing them if possible, setting the smallest possible number of rules, and documenting it all for future reference.

Q: No.  I am new to Flare, and I need the sort of "getting started" kind of info.[Guy O]

See my answer to the previous question and email me at if you have any questions about my recommendations.

Q: Sharepoint doesn't have to be as expensive as $7K/seat, etc.[Craig P]

Agreed. That $7K/seat figure was more in regard to traditional VCSs and CMSs. I’m not sure how much Sharepoint is per seat but it is less. I’ll emphasize the distinction between VCSs/CMSs and Sharepoint in that slide if I give this presentation again. Thanks.

Q: Regarding my question, what I really mean is can I create templates for Information Blocks within topics? Not really for snippets.[Albert N]

We may be getting into semantics since snippets, and variables, are “information blocks” within topics. Are we talking about the same thing? Email me at if I’m misunderstanding you.

Q: Please explain WebHelp AIR in the written responses. Thanks. [Steve J]

I wrote a detailed explanation of AIR in my blog in November 2008. The description is still good but is written from an Adobe perspective and some links have changed. What I can do is put on a 15 minute webinar on the subject for you and anyone else who’s interested. If you are interested, email me at and write “HEY NEIL – AIR” in the header so I don’t accidentally delete it. We’ll give it a few days to give anyone who’s interested a chance to respond and we’ll then set up the webinar.

Q: Can we have multiple users working on the same project and how does it work? [Fabienne B]

Yes, in two ways. The formal way is to use a VCS or CMS that controls access to individual files in a project, for example letting me view a file but not change it while you’re changing it – standard file locking. The other is to do this without a VCS or CMS but simply create the project on a network drive, since Flare is network-aware, and let author A work on topics 1-100, author B work on topics 101-200, etc. This is a bit risky since there is no file locking or security. You’re also subject to network traffic delays since you are working on the network, not a local copy of the project. Project management becomes crucial. But this approach does work. I set up such a project for a company in Florida a few years ago. They had 25 authors around the world who had to work on the same project but, for various reasons, could not use a VCS or CMS. So we set up the network-drive-based project and some management rules, tried it with 11 authors simultaneously as part of a training and consulting engagement, and it worked fine.

Q: We currently use AuthorIt.  How do we get AuthorIt content out...and in to Flare?  Would we have to publish to Word (for example) and then import into Flare...then re-format? [Greg A]

I haven’t looked at AIT for a bit, but I see two approaches. One is to output to Word and then import the Word files back into Flare. The second is to import the HTM files AIT creates, as I recall, into Flare. Then see which approach gives the better results. You’ll also want to see how Flare deals with AIT-specific feature codes. It should ignore them but it may trip over them. If Flare trips over them, you’ll obviously want to remove those codes, preferably by doing global search and replaces in the code. If Flare ignores those features, you don’t have to remove those codes but I’d recommend doing so anyway, again by doing search and replaces in the code, in order to get rid of any codes that may confuse later Flare authors or conflict with later technologies.

Q: Is there anything you want to say about ViziApps? [Craig P]

Viziapps is a GUI native mobile app authoring tool. (Think Flare for native mobile apps…) I’m a certified Viziapps consultant/instructor and am going to be giving a free webinar on Viziapps on Monday, April 30. Email me for details if you’re interested –

Q: Any cautions to using SVN? [ken w]

Nothing specific that I can think of offhand, other than following the rules. If anyone does have any specific comments, please email me and I’ll post them in a separate blog post, crediting you of course.

Q: Kind of a reverse proposition - Can Flare output be made available to an external CM system, where the topic content is available and displayable within CM system search results?[john b]

Interesting question. Let me make sure I understand… are you wanting to use Flare as a content feed portal into the CMS? Email me at if you’d like to discuss further.

Q: IN terms of using and accessing source codes, (I am not a common Madcap user), is there any graphical builder that can help building the block codes?[Majid A]

I’m not quite sure what you’re referring to here. Can you email me to discuss –

Q: How do you manage large numbers of snippets? [Brad S]

The big problem I find is not being able to find the snippet I want in a list of snippets, either because I didn’t set a naming convention in the first place or because I did and then didn’t follow them. The result is that you wind up with a large number of snippets but aren’t sure which one to pick. My suggestion is to set and adhere to naming conventions that make sense to you. For example, if I’m creating a snippet to contain a note or tip, I’ll preface the name with the word Note or Tip and then follow it with the actual descriptive name, like “Note – For other questions, contact” You might also set a naming convention to indicate whether a snippet contains a variable, whether the snippet is conditionalized, etc. The rule is that you should be able to find the desired snippet, and that the writer who replaces you should also be able to find the snippet.

Q: Do you have any recommendations or advice re: source control? [Kristi P]

Can you be more specific re source control in general, specific source control packages, workflow integration, or something else? Email me at and we can discuss further.

Q: Can you import Docbook?[Carol C]

I haven’t touched DocBook in years so take this with a grain of salt, but not that I’m aware of. However, if your DocBook authoring tool can save to HTML or XHTML, you should be able to.

Q: Regarding the Author-it question, we are facing that, and we are importing from the CHM files. It seemed that Word should have been a better option, but it proved not to be. Best to experiment with some samples.[Albert N]

See my response to your initial AIT question above. Word might still be a good option if you output the AIT to Word and then clean up the Word files prior to import back into Flare. It’s likely to be an ugly process no matter how you do it, so the goal may just have to be to find the least ugly process.

Q: I've been hoping for a solution that integrates Drupal (a very popular open-source CMS) and Flare. Combining the strengths of these two tools, In my opnion, this would be a 'killer app' for tech communicators. Have you encountered any solutions that integrate MySQL (Drupal's database) and Flare output?[Gabriel F]

Interesting question. I’ve been looking for some combination like this for a while. I know a guy who I think had been a senior guy with Drupal before starting his own company, and talking to him has been on my radar for a while but I just haven’t gotten around to it. You may be my motivation. Do me a favor and give me two weeks – that’s when I may see him – then ping me at and we’ll discuss the results.            

Q: In relation to building technical tool sets (Decision Support Systems), can Flare be used as an I/O (voice command, keyboard, etc.) to interact with for instance AI modules to provide a channel to receive information and provide inputs[Majid A]

Excellent question. I’ve never heard it before and I haven’t the slightest idea. :-) Contact your sales rep and ask to speak to the sales tech support person.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Table Stylesheets in Flare

I’ve gotten several emails recently asking about table style features in Flare 7 and 8. So this blog recaps the TableStyle Editor and two of its most useful but somewhat unfamiliar features.

When you create a table stylesheet, Flare takes you into the TableStyle Editor, shown below.
The General tab controls table-wide features like table margins, outer borders, cell padding, and so on. The remaining four tabs – Rows, Columns, Header, and Footer, have the same options. They let us set the formatting for different table elements, such as setting the colors and text attributes for alternate rows within the table, as shown above. Useful and simple. (I created the colors shown here for a class to be sure that attendees clearly saw the effect of different settings. I’d be unlikely to use such garish colors in a real project.) Straightforward…

At the top of the TableStyle Editor are two features that were added in Flare 7 and are in Flare 8 – Medium and Apply Style.
The Medium option extends the Medium feature to table styles. (Before 7, mediums were only available for regular CSSs.) A quick recap…

Mediums let us create a single CSS that contains alternate settings for alternate outputs. Say you’ve got a project to be output to WebHelp and PDF. You decide to use Verdana Red 16 pt for the WebHelp h1s and Verdana Black 16 pt for the PDF. You’d expect to create two CSSs in this case, one with the settings for the WebHelp and one for the PDF. If you later decided to add WebHelp Mobile as an output with h1s as Verdana Blue 12 pt., you’d have to add a third CSS. It’s simply, but maintenance gets cumbersome. Instead, you can create one CSS with specific settings for the default output, which you decide is WebHelp, and alternate settings for the PDF and mobile styles. You’re now using one CSS for all three outputs, which is easier to maintain. It’s a very useful feature if you single source. The addition of mediums to table stylesheets simply extends this flexibility.
The Apply Style feature automates several table tasks that are common even if you don’t single source. Clicking the Apply Style button displays the Apply Table Style dialog box, shown here

Prior to this feature appearing in Flare 7, applying a table stylesheet to tables was simple but tedious. You had to apply the stylesheet to each table individually. If some setting in the table stylesheet didn’t work, it was usually due to local formatting in the table, usually introduced when the original author tweaked the table by hand in Flare or Word to get it to look “right”. But local formatting overrides styles, so you had to remove the local formatting either by going into the code or by selecting Table > Reset Local Cell Formatting. Easy, but one table at a time.
The Apply Table Style feature eliminates much of the drudgery in table formatting. You select some or all of the topics in the project and simply tell Flare to apply the table stylesheet to all tables in those topics. You can also tell Flare to overwrite any existing styles in those tables, remove any print styles, and remove all local formatting.

So far, I’ve only found two cases where the Apply Table Style feature didn’t work, neither one being the fault of the feature itself.

The first is when a project has more than one type of table and thus more than one table stylesheet. In this case, Flare has no way of knowing what table stylesheets to apply to what tables. You have to apply the appropriate table stylesheets by hand. This seems like a fairly easy thing to fix by adding some sort of “type” indicator to the tables and then telling Flare to apply table stylesheet A to all tables of type A, table stylesheet B to all tables of type B, and so on. I *think* this has been added as a feature request for a later release.
The second is when importing tables from Word where the author used the first row to hold the column heads. When you import those tables into Flare and apply a table stylesheet, the Flare Header row styles don’t seem to work. The reason is that the original table uses the first row, usually, as a header row but it’s just an ordinary row. It’s not programmatically designated as a header row. So Flare doesn’t know to apply its programmatic Header row style to that row. Fixing this is tedious but simple… select the table, open the Table Properties dialog box, change the number of Header rows from 0 to 1, select the column heads in the table, move them into the “real” Flare Header row, at which point they instantly use the Header row styles, and delete the now empty “header row” from the table.

The only other instance that I can think of where this feature might not work is when dealing with very old Word documents that contain tables that had been hand-tweaked for years. The “reset local cell formatting” feature may have some limit as to the junk code it can deal with but I haven’t found it yet.
All in all, two nicely done features that add a degree of automation to a mundane task in help authoring.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Some Initial Observations about MadCap Flare 8

MadCap released Flare 8 last week. As usual, it has a mix of enhancements to existing features and some interesting new features. Here’s my quick take on what I view as the most significant…

Existing Features

Automatic update of changed element names – In prior versions, all authors had to agree on the name of a variable, condition, or file tag set before inserting it. If you created a variable called custname, for example, inserted it in 500 topics, and then changed the name to customername, the insertions broke and had to be recreated. That changed in Flare 8, where references to a named element are updated automatically. It’s a small change, but it adds authoring flexibility since a misnamed variable name is no longer carved in stone.

Additional print features – The print output features continue to grow, with Flare 8 adding features like the ability to control where page numbers appear for index entries, to suppress page number display for specific levels in a table of contents, to control how a PDF should display when it opens, a better ability to create tables with captions that repeat if the table spans multiple pages, and more. These features increase Flare’s ability to serve as the primary authoring environment for all outputs. However, these features also raise the potential complexity of a project and make it more important than ever to plan a project before starting it and document that plan for reference during maintenance. “Winging it” is less and less realistic an approach for project management.

New Features

ePub output – With the addition of ebooks in ePub format as an output option, Flare now handles two out of the four primary mobile outputs – ebooks and web apps. (But excluding native apps and hybrid apps, which are not an obvious fit for a tool like Flare - for the moment at least.) This, and the added print features, increases Flare’s utility as a central authoring environment. You will still have to validate the ePub code using an external validator if you want to send the ebook to a store, and that’s a jump in technical complexity, but the addition of ePub output is a strong step forward.

HTML 5 output – This is similar to the familiar WebHelp output but more powerful. This format supports the WHATWG HTML 5 format and CSS 3. It adds features that take advantage of the capabilities of new browsers. There are too many features to cover in a short blog post, but some of the major ones include support for SEO (search engine optimization – more about this below), improved “accessibility”, and server-based functionality like the ability to include non-XHTML (topic) files in a search. This is a strong step forward into the era of modern browsers.

SEO (search engine optimization) support – SEO is fairly new and esoteric for many help authors but it’s a reflection of changing trends in technical communication. How? In the past, access to help was usually limited to people who’d bought the application software for which the help had been created – the help was “inward-facing”, aimed at the buyers. People who hadn’t bought the software couldn’t see the help. Google changed this; buyers and potential buyers often did Google searches to find information about or answer questions about the application software instead of using the official help. As this practice spreads, the value of the official help will decline to the point where traditional help authoring may turn into an endangered niche.  The solution is to make the help “outward-facing” – to make sure it can be found via a search and not only found, but listed near or at the top of the search results. One way to do this is to include features that make the help easier to find by webcrawlers. If you’re creating traditional, inward-facing help, SEO isn’t a factor (although it’s worth learning about now.) But if your company is changing its online help strategy to an outward-facing one, SEO support features are going to become important immediately.

More posts in the near future but, overall, a very nice job.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Mobile App Usability Tale…

It’s often taken for granted that mobile apps are so simple that they don’t need online documentation or help. That may be true but it’s risky to assume that that’s always true. Here’s a case where it wasn’t.

There’s a game called Fruit Ninja (thanks, Sandra, I think…), also available on the iPhone. The object is to slice flying fruits in half with a sword, represented by your fingertip on the iPhone. The kicker is that the game periodically throws bombs at you. Slicing a bomb detonates it and ends the game.

I mentioned Fruit Ninja to a friend, who’ll remain nameless to spare him a lot of teasing (except from me, of course). I was on the phone with him last week and the subject turned to Fruit Ninja. He said it was fun but “what are you supposed to do with the damned bombs?”
It turned out that he had assumed that he was supposed to slice the bombs, like the fruit, but that there was a special way to do so to keep them from exploding. There isn’t. Hit them and they explode, period. I explained how to handle the bombs; he used several four-letter words, and said thanks…
I don’t want to read too much into this incident. This may be the only time it’s even happened. But this guy is a systems engineer for a large aerospace company, very bright, and he still misinterpreted the interface. My point is simply not to assume that everyone will understand how to use a mobile app.