WebHelp gives me flashbacks from the 1990s. A client of mine recently looked at a WebHelp project and said it was not “sexy enough.” I had a hard time disagreeing.
Tripane help is like the K-car (I know, I am dating myself here): reliable but a relic of another decade. The table of contents and skin look like they belong in a museum.
I subsequently created a version of browser-based Adobe AIR help. It’s much more modern looking. But it’s still fundamentally an old technology and paradigm. Sure, there’s the sleek exterior and the more modern presentation of the content but there’s still the tried-and-true vestiges: the table of contents, index (if you still create one), search, and content in the right-hand pane.
Other writers have critiqued the tripane online help too. Technical communicator and blogger Tom Johnson wrote in his blog:
“Although you can tweak its styles here and there, you can’t make tripane help look like a regular website. It just doesn’t fit in with anything on the web that you find post-2005. The more we move into the future of the web, the greater the divide grows between tech comm and interaction design. That divide worries me. When people see a tripane help site open up, it immediately signals a sense of outdatedness.”
Ben Minson, another technical communicator, wrote a blog entry about why he does not like tripane help.
Other than the outdated look, my main issue with tripane help is that there are versions of it that do not play well with iPads, iPhones, and most smartphones—all of the devices that one could argue are the future of computing. When I ran WebHelp on an iPad and iPhone, it was almost too slow to be considered usable.
PDFs are another old-style technology that writers still churn out (myself included). I don’t think PDFs are quite yet on life-support but I am interested in exploring alternatives. I plan to attend Bob Boiko’s talk about “Life after PDF” at the upcoming WritersUA conference in March 2013.
Creating PDFs is a snap for authors. But when the documents are long, they risk being monolithic and unwieldy for users. For instance, imagine having to read a 50- or 100-page PDF on a smartphone or even tablet. Painful.
To be fair here, help authoring vendors have innovated. We can create EPUB files, “mobile friendly” versions of help, and HTML5 files. But the enduring popularity of old technologies like tripane help and PDFs makes me wonder whether it’s time to ditch the familiar paradigms and embrace newer technologies that look like they belong in this century.