In a previous post, I posed the question, "Are printed manuals still necessary?" More to the point, do users really want a printed software manual. In this installment, we look at some of the different methods used to deliver documentation (help).


"Embedded help" is installed with the software. One of the advantages of embedded help is that no internet connection is required to use it. For someone who works in a sensitive environment, where communication breaches or file corruption could constitute a significant risk, access to online information might be prohibited. In this situation, typically called a "black box," embedded help might be a critical requirement. Another desireable feature of embedded help is that the information it contains applies to the specific version of software you are using. The downside is that embedded help, like  printed manuals, is out-of-date even before the product is released. This is just a fact of software development.


"Web-based help" is user documentation delivered via a Web server. The Help button directs you to the software company's site. This method of delivery has many advantages over printed or embedded help. Web-based documentation is, under ideal conditions, continuously updated, massively cross-referenced, available wherever you have an internet connection, and sometimes even interactive. Screen captures, diagrams, and other graphic elements can be zoomed to display specific components.


Each of these two methods of delivery enable the development of context-sensitive documentation. This simply means that the link you click, the little question mark or Help button, takes you directly to the topic that is specific to your current task or location (context) in the software. Done properly, context-sensitive help is a fast, efficient way to get the correct information you need to complete your task.-el