Proposal Smart Help
One of the main features of Smart Help is to provide detailed context sensitive information on each configurable parameter in the preferences panel.
This will allow us to use very short descriptions in the preferences panel, e.g. just a tick box with the word 'Overdub' beside it. Experienced users will already know what this does. Inexperienced users or users who have forgotten what the parameters in a particular parameter group do can click on the title for a group to get a description for each parameter in the group.
Current design difficulties:
In my prototype the help panel is a strip on the right side of the preferences dialog that is there all the time. That makes the preferences dialog rather wide. Current thinking is that on the interface panel in show/hide we add a tick box 'help on preferences'. It's ticked by default. When unticked the help vanishes and the dialog goes back to its normal size. Unlike most items its effect is immediate, i.e don't wait for OK/Cancel. Will we need the option of the help appearing in a separate window rather than making preferences wider?
I rather doubt the "widened Preferences" idea will work - what about the 800 x 600 screen size? The ways I've seen this done are:
- An additional help window (either disappears when preferences are exited or not)
- Same idea, but integrated with the inbuilt help, so there is no need to write extra text
- A pop up window or tooltip just for the item in question as per LRN's custom exporter (Leland would have to advise on the accessibility implications here)
Personally I like the third idea best, and the first least. The third one increases the chance of everyone seeing "near-essential" text like "uncheck when recording "stereo mix"" and could make it easier to omit it from the actual wording.
I'm not planning a per-item tooltip. It's going to be per wxStaticBox. I've experimented with this and found that this allows groups of related parameters to be explained better and in their proper context. Tooltips are OK for a small amount of text, e.g. telling you what a graphic button actually is. When you need a lot of text, and the whole point of this feature is to allow us to have as much descriptive text as we need, then you need a window that doesn't keep jumping around on the screen as you 'probe' one item after another.
I've re-read the original suggestion about the two way interaction between the HTML window and the Prefs. panel, and the implication there seems that the window actually has all the expanded text for the preferences, and scrolls? But I can't visualise that so easily with the clip-on to Preferences idea - was that just containing the text for the static box, or for the whole Preferences help text?
Clearly there are cases where grouping text by static box makes sense (e.g. FFT size). Talking together about two related radio buttons out of a number of elements in a box seems good too. But have you done a mock up of say "When importing audio files" (note the checkbox there is pretty unrelated to the radio buttons). And what about "Behaviors" on the Interface tab? I really can't visualise those nine elements as a static clip-on to the Preferences, if that's what it is.
Rightly or wrongly, my gut feeling at the moment is that the grouped text you're suggesting is going to be too nearly a duplication of the reference section of the manual; if so it might make more sense to wait if necessary and link the Preferences to inbuilt help, not to a custom and separate preferences help. I think having the manual built in is more important, and a subject of criticism in apps. when it isn't. Or are there technical obstacles to highlighting text inside the Help browser?
- James: The grouped text is the manual text for just those options. We shouldn't need to write extra text. We just need to make sure we've explained each preference clearly in the manual. The point is that even with a manual people don't read it and/or can't find their way around easily. Being able to click on a static box and find out "what the stuff in it for" is what this is about. The prototype has the help in a html window, which is a narrow scroller on the right. With a decent sized screen I find that works best for me, though it is as easy to use the built-in help browser instead.
I also think there is a case for an "intermediate" level of quick help, probably per item, which (in other apps) might go directly in the interface. For this, a tooltip/pop up is appropriate, though I understand there are issues such as tooltips for check boxes. I see this "intermediate" help as additional to a help button per Preferences tab or per static box which goes to a reference section. I think per-item help will assist newbies more, if they don't actually click our help icon for fear of information overload/having to wade though a whole help section. This is a real problem in some apps, and they may assume ours is the same. Maybe these in-situ hints could be turned off by a preference.
- James: I have three triggers for updating the help scroller. Clicking on a static box (not on a control), changing any parameter, changing to a new tab. These would all be active on a fresh install so the new-user would see the help. I think this sufficiently reduces the risk of a user not discovering that there is useful help? Because it is in a fixed place it is easier for the possibly overloaded noob to take it or leave it. A fundamental problem with the quick-help as tooltip is that potentially it needs to be the full length of the manual help for that item, or it might not say enough. Even the full strings we've been suggesting for preference items as stopgap are long and still a bit cryptic. A new user might come to rely on the tooltips and get stuck when they hit a difficult one which we've had to keep short, whereas with the panel-based help we're easing them gently into actually reading the manual - and making sure our manual is organised so that it is right for dipping into.
Gale: I'd think people on large screen/high-res systems might prefer an extension to the Preferences panel, but we can't rely solely on that because others will not have such systems. So, either an option to choose a separate window or extended panel, or only a separate window. Another possibility you could consider for the extended panel would be the sort of sliding gizmo we used to have for Metadata Editor: it could slide back in when you click anywhere else in the panel, or switch to the new text if you click the help for another static box.
One advantage of having a separate window that is actually the highlighted section of the manual is that encourages the manual as a whole to be left open and read. Rather than doing that by having a modeless window like our Welcome Screen, I like how Goldwave opens the manual at the revelant point in a separate window whenever you click "help" in a Preference or Effect. You can then task switch between the Manual and the main app. I don't know about the accessibility issues of this, but it's what we do when opening a new project, and overall, this would be my choice for handling Preferences help, with tooltips at the level of our current longer in situ text.
What you've described with the trigger-based help scroller sounds a very interesting alternative which has some advantages over tooltips (ones you've described, and the reduced visual intrusiveness in random places). However, in order to replace tooltips and function as readily visible help, I think it needs to be "always on" while the Preference to enable it is checked. This would mean it does not rely on clicking a Help icon or your triggers to initially activate it. Instead, when you open Preferences on first launch it either shows the first static box, or (better) a sentence or two that describes the purpose of the Audio I/O tab. The manual does not have this, but that is easily fixed, and probably a good idea anyway.
If the help scroller is always on when enabled, then we could simply add a button at a later stage once the manual is built-in: "View Manual". It opens the Manual in a new window at the relevant highlighted section, and has the benefits I cited above. However (as I think you're already intending) the Preferences help scroller disappears when Preferences are closed, even if that help scroller is a separate window.
My opinion would be that if we're forsaking hover tooltips, then merely tabbing to a control, or selecting it without changing it (as you might do with a combo box) should switch help to the current static box when it's not already there.