The company I’m working for is about to release a new version of our flagship product. The change is similar in scope to the change from Word 2003 to Word 2007 in two significant ways: (1) the UI has undergone a drastic modification, and (2) the functionality in the previous version exists in the new version, but in almost every case you do it in a different way.
This is the first version of the application that I will be able to embed context-sensitive help. The last version of the app shipped with around 200 pages of printed documentation; it’s a complex and powerful tool. However, the UI appears deceptively simple: there are only six pages. Everything else happens in panels on the screen, and modal windows that appear when needed.
Because there are only six main pages in the app, I only have six help buttons, so there are six entry points to the context sensitive help.
As I sat down and tried to identify how users would access the help system, I looked at the screen and realized that I could use image maps to help users get right to the section of help that they need.
When a user clicks the help button, they are taken to the main help page for that module. The first thing they see is a screen shot of the page they were on when they clicked the help button. The instructions tell the user to click the section of the image that they want to know more about. The image map links them to the help topic (or section of the page) that discusses that functionality.
In some cases this links directly to text, describing a feature. In other cases, the user sees another, more detailed image where they can click again to get the specific help they need.
One of my goals was to make it easy to get help for using specific parts of our application. Users don’t need to know the name of the panel or feature they are trying to use. They just need to know where they are working on the screen, and they can click through to get the help that discusses that part of the screen.
This isn’t a solution for all users; I still include a table of contents, an index, and a search box in my online help system, however, I think that image maps may help my users get the specific information they want quickly without having to do a bunch of reading to identify where they want to go.
We get to have some user beta testing this week, and I’m excited to see if the users are able to get the info they need quickly and easily. (I’m actually not sure that the help is slated for testing yet, but if I hear back, I’ll let you know.)
What do you think? Do you see image maps as being a useful tool in online helps for web applications?