To boldly go where no tech writer has gone before (one can dream, right?)

DITA and user assistance: Real-world implementation

In a post that I published last year, I said that I would document how we implemented Ray Gallon’s double-embeddedness theory for a project we were developing. Here I am, a year later, with the details of this implementation. Better late than never, right? :)

The theory


Let’s start by summarizing Ray’s theory.

The concepts: Cognition and context

There are two main concepts in this theory:

  • Users learn best when the information they need to perform a task is available as they are performing the task.
  • Users learn best when they understand why they are performing a task. They need to know quickly if they need to perform a task. They need concepts as they are performing their tasks.

The solution: Double embeddedness

The solution is what Ray calls “double embeddedness”:

  • Embed the user assistance directly in the user interface.
  • Embed simple concepts directly into the user assistance.

…with progressive disclosure:

  • Initially, show users only a few of the most important options.
  • Offer a larger set of specialized options upon request, and disclose these secondary features only if a user asks for them, meaning that most users can proceed with their tasks without worrying about this added complexity.

In summary, we want user assistance that:

  • Gives users all the information they need and only the information they need
  • Delivers that information when they need it
  • Includes a sentence or two of conceptual information in context
  • Is embedded in the UI in such a way that:
    • The user can find it immediately, without excessive searching
    • If the user doesn’t need the help, it stays out of the way

Real-life implementation: Web Author user assistance


I sat down with the developers at IXIASOFT to discuss how we could implement this theory in our new product, called Web Author. The Web Author is a web editor that allows casual contributors and reviewers to edit and review DITA topics from an Internet browser. Because users would not be familiar with DITA and would not use this tool every day, it was a perfect candidate for the type of user assistance that Ray talked about.

We started by defining three levels of help.

Level 1: Tooltips

When users hover over an element of the UI, a pop-up is displayed with a short overview of the function. The tooltip provides some conceptual information to put users in context as they are performing the task.

The following diagram shows a sample tooltip. When a user logs in, the Web Author lists the documents that are assigned to the user. The number of documents assigned is displayed in the Number of assignments area. When users hover over this area (the purple square with a number in it), the following tooltip is displayed:

Level 1: Tool tip

Level 1: Tool tip

The tooltip contains a More… link so if users need more information about the area, they click the link and level 2 help is displayed.

Level 2: Help area details

Level 2 help provides more detailed information about the area as well as links to what you can do in this area (i.e., the actual procedures). For example, if a user clicks More in the Number of assignments tooltip, the following window is displayed:

Level 2: Help details

Level 2; Help details

The level 2 help is not displayed in a pop-up window, it’s embedded in the user interface, in the lower left corner of the main window, as shown above.

Another requirement of Ray’s theory is that help should be unobtrusive and be out of the way if users don’t need it. For this, we added the hide tips/show tips toggle button on top of the help details window (shown above). When users are familiar enough with the user interface and no longer want the help, they can simply disable it by clicking hide tips. Should they need to see the help again later on, they simply click the show tips button.

If a user still needs more information, clicking one of the related links will open the level 3 help.

Level 3: HTML Help

This is a standard HTML help system available in another tab of the browser. When users click the links in the help details area, they are taken to the corresponding procedure in the online help, shown below:

Level 3: Help system

Level 3: Help system

DITA implementation


To implement the user assistance, we decided to use the DITA <resourceid> element and outputclass attribute.

To link the DITA topic to the appropriate user interface area, we use the <resourceid> element in the <prolog>. For example, to specify the topic that applies to the Number of assignments area, we added the following code to the topic:

 <prolog>
   <resourceid appname="cms.webauthor" id="com.ixiasoft.help.assignments.number"/>
 </prolog>

The appname specifies the product name (in this case, the Web Author) and the resourceid specifies the resource id of the area as specified in the Java code. This ensures that when a user hovers over an area, the Web Author knows from which topic to pull the documentation.

Using the <resourceid> element for context-sensitive help is a pretty standard approach. What’s different about our implementation is that we decided to use the outputclass attribute to identify what to display at each level of help.

We defined three values for outputclass:

  • outputclass="help_tooltip": Defines level 1 help
  • outputclass="help_context": Defines level 2 help
  • outputclass="help_related_information": Defines the related links that will open the HTML help

For example, the following code shows the DITA file for the Number of assignments topic:


<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE concept PUBLIC "-//IXIA//DTD IXIA DITA Composite//EN" "../../system/dtd/ixia/IxiaDitabase.dtd">
<concept id="per1389986405854" xml:lang="en-us">
	<title>Number of assignments area</title>
    <shortdesc outputclass="help_tooltip"><ph id="number">Displays the number of documents assigned to you in the
        role selected.</ph> </shortdesc>
    <prolog>
        <resourceid appname="cms.webauthor" id="com.ixiasoft.help.assignments.number"/>
    </prolog>
   <conbody>
       <section outputclass="help_context">
           <p>When you select a role in the <uicontrol>Roles</uicontrol> drop-down list, all the
                documents assigned to you and active for that role are displayed in the Assignments
                pane, and the number of documents is updated in the <uicontrol>Number of
                    assignments</uicontrol> area.</p>
            <p>To refresh the list and the number of active documents, click the
                    <uicontrol>Refresh</uicontrol> icon in the <wintitle>Number of
                    assignments</wintitle> area.</p>
       </section>
   </conbody>
    <related-links outputclass="help_related_information">     
        <link href="per1389986405575.xml#per1389986405575" outputclass="help_related_information_link"/>
        <link href="per1389986404838.xml#per1389986404838" outputclass="help_related_information_link"/>
        <link href="per1389986405139.xml#per1389986405139" outputclass="help_related_information_link"/>
    </related-links>
</concept>

When a user hovers over the Number of assignments area, the user assistance looks for the element with the outputclass="help_tooltip". This is usually the <shortdesc> element. If a user clicks the More… link, the user assistance then looks for the element with the outputclass="help_context". In the example above, the attribute is set on the <section> element, so this whole element is included in the help details. The related links specified with the outputclass="help_related_information" are displayed at the bottom of the help details. If a user clicks one of these links, then the user assistance opens up the complete HTML help.

This is shown in the following diagram (you might want to click the diagram to enlarge it and see the details):

Summary of user assistance

Summary of user assistance

One of the advantages of using the outputclass is that it’s valid on any DITA element, so it’s very flexible; the user assistance only needs to look for the defined outputclass, no matter the type of topic. We can use any element in any type of topic to produce the user assistance.

Another advantage of using the outputclass attribute is that the same source content can be used for the user assistance, the HTML online help, as well as a PDF User Guide that was requested by our customers. But this will be the subject of another post, since this one is getting long enough already.

Summary
As you can see from this approach, a lot of magic happens behind the scenes (i.e., in the software) to enable this user assistance. I am lucky enough to work with developers who think that documentation and user assistance are very important, so they decided to treat the user assistance as a feature of the product. They developed a custom XSLT transformation scenario that generates an .hlp file with the user assistance. They also added code to the Web Author that extracts the right level of help according to user actions.

So yes, this method requires custom code from developers, but I think it’s a great example of how DITA can be used to create context-sensitive help.

Again, special thanks to Ray Gallon for his research and very inspiring webinar.

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3 Responses to “DITA and user assistance: Real-world implementation”

  1. craig wright says:

    I like this type of built-in user assistance. Just out of interest, if there was a particularly complex concept, would the level 2 part be scrollable?

  2. Nathalie says:

    Thanks Craig. The way the level 2 help is set up right now, the help area takes up as much as it needs, starting from the bottom of the window. I’m not sure what would happen if we wrote a particularly long concept, might be interesting to find out ;-) But our approach has been to try to keep this area as short as possible, and instead add a link to a longer concept in level 3 help if necessary.

    I think I’ll try with a very long test concept for the fun of it :)

  3. craig wright says:

    Yes, a link to level 3 makes sense. I just wondered how dynamic the level 2 pop-up was.

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