A common use for tabs in web browsers is to set something aside to read it later. This is sometimes handy in help as well, but tabs are a very heavyweight thing for a help viewer. Instead, I created a “Read Later” list. You can right-click a link and select “Read Link Later”:

The “Read Later” list appears at the bottom of your window, showing you everything you’ve been wanting to read:

The list will have proper link text soon, just as soon as WebKitGTK+ gives me a DOM node for a hit test result. (Hint, hint, lovely WebKit peeps.)

This feels really natural to me. Just like bookmarks and quick search and everything else in Yelp 3, the “Read Later” list is per-document. So you won’t see that Gnumeric function reference you’ve been wanting to look over when you’re trying to figure out how to get Banshee to recognize your portable media player. And one of the really nice benefits over tabs is that you can close Yelp and come back to it later, and your list will still be there.

Last week, I revamped Yelp’s bookmarks. Like most other things in Yelp 3, bookmarks are now handled per-document. So when you’re viewing the Empathy help, you don’t see a bunch of bookmarks for Banshee and Tomboy and Brasero. Bookmarks are stored with their title and page type, so we can show the page type icon. We also sort by the page type first, as we do for quick search.

Yelp's Bookmarks Menu

In this screenshot, Add Bookmark is insensitive because I happen to be viewing the page “Empathy Instant Messenger”, which is already bookmarked. It doesn’t make sense to bookmark the same page twice. When you want to bookmark a page, you can either use the menu item, or you can use the icon embedded into the location entry.

Add Bookmark Icon in the Location Entry

And taking a cue from Epiphany, the history and quick-search drop-downs show you which pages you’ve already bookmarked.

Bookmarked Entries in Quick Search

I had to steal Epiphany’s icon for this and install it along with Yelp’s other icons. I was surprised to find that it isn’t a standard icon. I think more applications should mark your bookmarked items when searching.

GIO docs in Mallard in Yelp

GIO docs in Mallard in Yelp

This is the GIO API reference, generated by gtk-doc, converted to Mallard, and displayed in Yelp 3. Yelp is a surprisingly nice API documentation viewer.

Update: If you use Devhelp a lot, you probably use the Search tab to get to symbols quickly. We’ve got that covered. The quick search feature in Yelp lets you search as you type on page titles and descriptions.

If you type multiple words separated by spaces, Yelp ANDs them. This is really handy for narrowing the results without having to type a perfectly matched string.

Faceted Navigation

2010-04-26

Ever since Matthew Ellison’s talk at the WritersUA conference, I’ve been thinking a lot about faceted navigation. This is a navigational design where you narrow your focus based on certain criteria. A recent example I’ve encountered a lot lately is in searching for real estate. You can narrow your results by how many bedrooms or a price range. Car sales sites might let you narrow based on color or type of car.

What I always try to do with Mallard is make it as simple as possible to provide rich navigation to help users. It’s not enough to be able to slap some pages on the web; any wiki can do that. The goal is to create something that encourages writers to write and organize well.

I wanted to explore simple and Mallardesque ways of doing faceted navigation, but it just didn’t make sense for any of the application help documents we’ve been doing. Along came the HIG. Our usability experts want to create a new pattern library to augment our design guidelines, and I decided to explore how well Mallard would fit. This, I realized, was my chance to try faceted navigation.

In this simple example, there is one facet with three choices. This is all defined using a simple Mallard extension format in the page file. The topics then declare which facet items they’re relevant for. Deselect ‘Mobile’ and you’ll see this:

This is all very rough at the moment, but it’s interesting. To me, anyway. With enhancements like faceted navigation, I think Mallard would be an excellent base for some new topic-oriented developer guides, such as the following:

  • UI Guidelines and Pattern Library
  • UA Guidelines and Templates
  • Accessibility Guidelines
  • Hacking Intros and Howtos

I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.

Yelp Editor Mode

2010-04-01

Phil asks, Phil gets. Yelp has an editor mode, which looks like this:

In editor mode, Yelp shows a revisioon banner along the top, as well as revision badges next to link boxes. It also shows editorial comments, though that’s not in this screenshot. Also notice the “Stub Page”. This comes from a file with the .page.stub extension, instead of the regular .page extension. This was an idea Phil had to help us stub out extension points in documents when we write them. Yelp only shows stub pages in editor mode, and it gives them a red background so you know they’re stubs:

And, by the way, this is no longer yelp-3-0. This is master.

I attended the WritersUA conference this week. This is a major event for people who work on user assistance. Unfortunately, it’s usually full of commercial types, with no representation from the free software world. Jim Campbell and I decided to go show off Mallard and let people know about all the cool things happening in open source documentation.

It was interesting to me to see the cultural differences between commercial UA efforts and the communities of volunteers that I’m used to. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase “business case”. I don’t make business cases. I help users. With some very notable exceptions, most of the people there seemed to want to do their jobs and go home. They’re not interested in looking at new technologies unless it’s something they can buy.

Here’s a few highlights of the things I attended:

Developing Documentation for Open Source Environments

Joe ‘Zonker’ Brockmeier gave a presentation about documentation in open source projects. My head-nodding muscles got tired by the end of the talk. I didn’t take away any great insights, but it was nice to hear that the sorts of challenges we face in GNOME are faced by other teams as well.

Joe presents very well, and I think he did a good job of explaining things to an audience of non-open-source people. I hope some of the audience walked away with a better appreciation of the challenges we face and the innovative solutions we come up with as a result.

Joe also pulled me up to give a quick introduction to Mallard during his presentation. I think that went over pretty well. There were a lot of audience questions, so people are interested.

Accessibility Table

The WritersUA conference has topic-oriented tables for lunch. There are signs on each table giving a discussion topic, and you sit at a table for a topic that interests you. There were a few that interested me, but I decided to sit at the accessibility table.

Alone. There was nobody else there. But I decided to sit there anyway, as a sign of support and solidarity for something I think is very important. Halfway through my lunch, I was finally joined by a guy from Microsoft. That was an interesting conversation.

Mallard Showcase

Jim and I presented Mallard in the peer showcase. There were 23 tables, each showing off some technology, technique, or experience. We got very positive reactions from everybody that came to the table, and a lot of really good questions and ideas.

Unfortunately, most people didn’t come to our table. I think they weren’t interested in a technology showcase that didn’t directly affect their jobs. I understand that their employers are expecting them to come back with a list of recommendations and vendors, and we didn’t fit into that. But exploring new ideas, whether immediately relevant or not, just seems natural to me. It’s what you do when you’re passionate about something.

I also got a really nice compliment during the showcase. One of the attendees who is an expert on readable page layouts said the presentation in Yelp was really good. She liked the subtle use of colors and icons to set off parts of the page without being overbearing. She did call it “a bit unorthodox”, but she liked it. I’m OK with being unorthodox, as long as users are happy.

Turning Search into Find

Matthew Ellison gave a great presentation about how users find information, and how we can improve our search systems to better match what they want. He pointed to a study that showed that search is actually a less effective way of finding information, but that it’s what users prefer to do anyway.

He started off talking about Google’s “suggest” feature, where it shows a list of suggestions as you type in the search field. He thought this was a great feature, and that help systems should do it. I agreed. Fortunately, I had my laptop and emacs close at hand, so I spent the remainder of the talk adding auto-completion on page titles and descriptions to Yelp. Obligatory screenshot:

He also talked about narrowing search results with “facets”. This is a fancy term for the types of selection criteria you often see on shopping sites. An online shoe store, for instance, might allow you to specify size, color, and style, and narrow your results based on that. He suggested using this in help. You could narrow your results based on audience (system administrator) or type of page (troubleshooting, task, overview). This is probably overkill for most application help, but it’s an interesting idea to pursue for larger documents. It could be useful, for example, for the next-generation HIG.

Closing Session

The closing session was a panel of four professionals who gave predictions on various topics. One of the predictions was that we’ll see more help built into applications, using unobtrusive popup help. She said they just needed the tool vendors to make it easy for them. Funny, I was working on a framework for doing exactly that in GTK+ just last month. And I’m planning on talking about it at GUADEC. We don’t wait for vendors. We write our own destiny.

Another panelist suggested that documentation will be increasingly machine translated. While it might not give excellent results, the results may be good enough to justify the savings. She also said that you have no quality control with “crowdsourcing” your translations.

We know better. While proprietary software companies have to make business cases to justify the costs of translating into six languages, we get communities of enthusiastic users translating our software into over 80 languages. And we know how to prevent it from being anarchy. I’ve said before that I believe that GNOME has the best translation teams in the world. I’d lay down money that our translations would meet or excede the quality of those from a proprietary company if sent to an independant reviewer.

In fact, difficulties with translations was a common topic at the conference. A lot of companies are still struggling with managing translations when documents get updated. This is a solved problem to me. Somebody from Transifex or any of the other awesome open source translation tools needs to go next year to show these people what they’re missing.

Next Year

As for me, I’m planning on attending next year and continuing to bridge the gap. We have a lot of really awesome tools and ideas that other people don’t know about. And they have real-world experience, often with real data, that we could learn from.

The conference organizer, Joe Welinski, offered to help me co-host an open source event at next year’s WritersUA. I’m seriously considering running the OpenSourceUA conference the weekend leading into WritersUA. Hopefully at least a few of the WritersUA attendees will be interested enough to come a day or two early. There are no firm plans yet, but I’ll keep people posted.

Yelp and PackageKit

2010-03-17

Mallard was designed from the beginning to make it easy for plugins to add pages into application help documents. This works really well in a lot of cases, but sometimes you want to mention extra functionality even when the plugin isn’t installed. And sometimes, extra functionality is provided by plugins to backend frameworks. A GStreamer plugin isn’t going to install Banshee help files, and a Telepathy plugin isn’t going to install Empathy help files.

So we have pages in the Empathy help that talk about using IRC. To use IRC in Empathy, you have to have telepathy-idle installed, and it turns out that some distros don’t install it by default. If the help just blindly assumes it’s installed, it just leaves the user confused. So we addressed this by adding a note like this:

This is somewhat helpful. The user at least knows why all those IRC options aren’t showing up. If he’s savvy, he’ll open his package manager and be chatting in no time. If not, he at least has something to Google for. But why not make it easier?

Click the link and you get this:

This is not a mockup. This is yelp-3-0. And it rocks.

I posted before about the magic search+location entry I’m working on for Yelp. The general goal is to reduce Yelp’s interface to the smallest number of elements possible. The drop-down is very terse, though, and doesn’t give you a lot of information.

One of the things I really like about Mallard guide pages is that they present topics to you with more verbose text descriptions. This allows readers to scan titles quickly, while still letting them check the description for assurance before committing to a click. I wanted to bring that to the location dropdown.

Another problem is that the search entries in the dropdown gave no indication of where they’re searching. For 3.0, we want to have searches be per-document by default, with a link to search the entire help system instead. This would give you two entries in your history that look exactly alike, but return different search results.

So I played around with using two-line entries in the drop-down. For normal page entries, this is the same title and description you would see if it were on a guide page. For search entries, you see the search terms and where it’s searching.

Obligatory screenshot:

Yelp Live Help

2009-09-28

By day, I’ve been learning my way around the awesome Telepathy framework as part of my work with Collabora.  By night, I’ve been busy hacking away on Yelp 3.0 (which, I don’t mind telling you, will rock).  And somewhere in between, I’ve been contemplating how to make Yelp telepathic.

Here’s the general notion: When the help just isn’t helping you, you’d be able to connect to Live Help, which would be something like a chat room, hopefully populated with people who want to help.  The Live Help chat would be attached to your Yelp window.  Other users would be able to see what document you’re looking at, and send you pages which would open in your Yelp window.

The Live Help channel would also maintain a list of comments made about pages.  So if somebody asks a damn good question, somebody could write something up in a comment on a page of the help document.  As soon as you connect to Live Help, you’d get all the comments stored in the channel for the document you’re viewing.

This is a very rough idea right now.  There are tons of technical and social problems that would have to be solved to make sure it works well.  I’m curious if people have any thoughts, opinions, or criticisms.  (And, by the way, we could totally extend this functionality to developer documentation as well, which I think would be awesome.)

So I’ve begun picking Yelp apart in preparation for Yelp 3.0.  I’ve gotten to the broken-eggs stage.  It still doesn’t look like an omelette.  I have a lot of goals for 3.0, including providing a reusable documentation-viewing widget for other projects.  But one of the cool things I’ve been hacking on today is a combined location and search entry.  It’s still very much a work in progress, but I wanted to show screenshots anyway.

When you’re on a page, the location entry will show you what page you’re on, like so:

screen1

You can click the drop-down arrow for a history of where you’ve been:

screen2

If you click in the text field, you can type in some search terms:

screen3

And when you activate a search, it becomes a location in your history:

screen4

It still needs some polish, and I need some icons so I don’t have to abuse the search folder icon.  And it definitely needs some usability testing to see if its functionality is discoverable.  Help viewers can’t afford to have a learning curve.  But it’s been fun to play with so far.