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Apple Guide Intro
Volume Number:11
Issue Number:3
Column Tag:Essential Apple Technology

Apple Guide Isn’t Help

it is something much more interesting

By Jesse Feiler, Philmont Software Mill

If you doubt that statement, take a look at Figure 1, showing Apple Guide assistance at work. In this screen shot, you see an Apple Guide panel and an ever-popular Apple Guide coach mark. Yes, this could be traditional help - but the coach mark and the “Oops” in the Apple Guide panel belie that. Apple Guide doesn’t just tell you things - it provides active assistance to you as you do them.

“Active” is the keynote here. That coach mark will circle the “Color intervals” chapter button no matter where it is on the screen: move the Controller, scroll the list of chapters - that coach mark will be where it should be. And that “Oops” in the Apple Guide panel is another sign of Apple Guide’s activity - Apple Guide was watching to make sure you followed the instructions correctly, and warned you when you made a mistake.

Figure 2 shows another form of Apple Guide’s activity, and another way in which Apple Guide can handle the case where you don’t follow instructions correctly. Apple Guide actually does the task for you. This certainly isn’t the “help” that you’re used to in computer programs.

Figure 1

Figure 2

In the world of software, “help” can be a bad word, carrying with it connotations that are far from positive. From the software developer’s point of view, “help” for users implies that the software is complicated or even (gulp!) not designed well. We all spend enormous amounts of time making our products simple, clear, and easy-to-use. Adding “help” suggests that these efforts have been less than complete.

From the user’s point of view, asking for help suggests that you aren’t able to do something that you should be able to do. Some people have tremendous difficulty asking for help under any circumstances - even when the help is electronic. The endless anecdotes of drivers who refuse to ask for directions and the innumerable sitcoms featuring characters from Lucy to Archie to Murphy who refuse to ask for help and thereby create all sorts of havoc for thirty minutes just illustrate this point.

Rather than think of Apple Guide as help (which it isn’t), think of it as service - a rare (so far) luxury that far from embarrassing, annoying, or frustrating you makes you feel wonderful. Service is a personal transaction, provided one-on-one. It requires an understanding of what a person is attempting to do and what he or she is likely to do next. By its nature, Apple Guide assistance provides different assistance to different people at different times. Service at its best is unobtrusive but always available. “Service” reminds us that it is the computer that serves us; that the machine should adapt to the needs of the user. As opposed to “help” which may connote difficulty, incompetence, or lack of skills, “service” is always a positive experience.

Note the emphasis on people and what they are doing. There is a big distinction between the tasks that people do (which are generally things they are interested in) and the tools that they use to do those tasks (which they generally are interested in only when something goes awry). It may be a shock to you, but people usually don’t want to use your software (well, your parents do, but ). People want to write letters, play computer games, and send messages.

Apple Guide really isn’t about computers at all: it’s about something much more interesting - people. Now maybe you actually are much more interested in computers and in writing software than you are in people and their behavior. That’s OK, and it’s one of the things that makes the world an interesting place. But there’s one very important thing to remember about people, one particular behavior in which they partake that even the most computer-centric developer must acknowledge: they buy software and write paychecks. So get out that installation disk and re-install Apple Guide: it takes 2MB of disk space (far less than a word processor), and almost no memory when it’s not in use.

In this very brief overview of Apple Guide, you’ll see the types of assistance that Apple Guide can provide as well as some of the opportunities with Apple Guide. [See the end of the article for information on Jesse’s upcoming book on Apple Guide - ed stb].

Types of Assistance

You can do many things with Apple Guide, but guide files are usually divided into four main types: tutorials, help, shortcuts, and a grab-bag of others.

Tutorials walk the user through a task step-by-step. These guide files can replace much documentation that previously would have been printed, and can be much more effective. If you have worked on instructional documentation for software, you have probably had the rather time-consuming task of creating, assembling, and printing screen shots to illustrate the steps involved in a task. Often the screen shots need to be adjusted or modified, with arrows pointing to interface objects and text identifying them. And then just when you get it right, the interface changes just a bit and all the screen shots in your manual are out of date. With Apple Guide, the learning experience is directly with the application. There are no screen shots to worry about - you specify Apple Guide coach marks and the actual interface elements are identified. If they change size or shape or move around, Apple Guide just draws the coach mark in a new location. Now how much drudgery does that one feature save?

From the user’s point of view, Apple Guide’s active assistance means that the tutorial can function as a true teacher. Back in the 1950’s, Dr. B. F. Skinner wrote about teaching machines that would present a single concept, test that the student understood it, and then proceed to the next concept - only when the teaching machine was satisfied that the student had indeed mastered the idea. It may have taken a little while, but we finally have implemented this concept. Apple Guide provides a number of features that can help the student learn. In addition to watching to make certain that the user has done the right thing, Apple Guide can easily provide further assistance if the user needs it - the Huh? Button shown at the bottom of the panel in Figure 1 can be enabled to provide a doorway to more information if the user wants it. And the user proceeds at whatever pace is convenient - even stopping if necessary. All Apple Guide panels have a close box: you never get trapped in a guide file.

While Apple Guide isn’t help, it can provide help as one of its services. Guide files that provide help have a different behavioral aspect from tutorials. Whereas Tutorials coach the user step-by-step through the task, Help guide files often are much more focused on a result than on a process. Each has its place. In a real-world example of this sort of behavior, a person (who shall remain nameless) does not know how to FTP files from the Internet, and asks someone else in the office to do it whenever necessary. As a New Year’s resolution, the party involved promised that in the New Year he would learn how to FTP files from the Internet himself. Apple Guide could provide either type of assistance: the first, simple help is of the “do it for me” type; the second, which would be a tutorial is of the “teach me step by step how to do it so I can do it myself next time.”

The third type of guide file is a Shortcuts file. These files provide the information that is usually found on keyboard overlays, back covers of manuals - and little notes stuck on the side of the monitor. The behavior associated with a tutorial guide file is generally a fairly lengthy interaction in which the user does things step by step, the behavior associated with a help guide file is fairly brief, and often Apple Guide actually does the task for the user. The behavior associated with a shortcuts file is different again: it is relatively brief, but the user will generally do the task in the end.

The last type of guide file is a hodge-podge group called Other guide files. These include promotional guide files that demonstrate applications and solutions, as well as custom solutions implemented with Apple Guide files that tie several applications together, and many more.

Each of these different types of guide files is constructed in the same way and from the same elements. Their differences lie in the information that they present, and the ways in which people use them.

Opportunities With Apple Guide

Since Apple Guide is so much more than just help, the opportunities for developers that it provides are wide-ranging. The most obvious opportunity, of course, is for an application developer to incorporate Apple Guide into the software in order to provide a superior user experience and possibly to reduce support costs in terms both of documentation that needs to be printed and technical support calls that need to be answered. The vast majority of technical support calls are unnecessary in the sense that someone who had read the (mountains of poorly-organized) documentation would know the answer.

But the opportunities don’t end there, by any means. Since Apple Guide does not require any modifications to an application, a third-party developer can add an Apple Guide file to an application either to provide assistance that the original developer did not provide or to provide assistance that is specific to a vertical market or an individual user. As an example, WordPerfect ships with Apple Guide assistance. An opportunity exists for a third-party developer to ship an Apple Guide file that specifically shows how to use WordPerfect to produce documents in a law office. A further opportunity exists for a consultant or solution provider to develop an Apple Guide file that codifies the policies and practices in the XYZ Law Office.

Apple Guide can be added to a specific application - or to a solution which encompasses several applications. Often in designing a custom solution the consultant hesitates to incorporate too many different applications since the user will need to switch among them. With Apple Guide coaching users through each step they need to take in all of the applications that make up the solution, a common interface can be provided. (Yes, yes, with OpenDoc the travails of combining several applications into a custom solution will be minimized. How reassuring it is to note that in the latest developer release of OpenDoc, Apple Guide is right up there in the Human Interface documentation. You can attach Apple Guide assistance to OpenDoc parts as well as to traditional applications.)

And you can also attach Apple Guide assistance to content. It is as easy to write an Apple Guide file for a specific HyperCard stack as it is to write a guide file for the HyperCard application itself. Apple Guide files can be attached to databases and interactive multimedia content, too.

Of course, Apple has provided Apple Guide assistance for the Macintosh itself, so there’s no opportunity for a third-party developer to add Apple Guide assistance to the Mac OS itself.

Hah!

Get yourself over to your local Apple independent dealer (not a chain). Have a chat about how they compete with the big guys. You’ll hear things like individualized service, custom solutions, on-site repairs, etc. You may well hear that your local independent dealer bench tests most if not all of the machines that are sold. Many times memory and disk configurations are modified before the customer takes the computer. If that dealer had an Apple Guide file that could be tossed into the Extensions folder and automatically added to the Guide menu, the dealer’s added value would be visible to the user whenever necessary. What would such a guide file contain? Phone numbers, hours of the service department’s operation, information about service contracts, etc. The nice thing about Apple Guide is that it is unobtrusive, there but not active unless you want to use it. If the dealer shipped computers with a screen saver that displayed promotional information, customers would probably shop elsewhere. On the other hand, an Apple Guide guide file that’s only there when the user asks to see it, is a true service to the user and a benefit to the dealer.

Conclusion

Apple Guide can truly be the gateway to a much simpler and more sophisticated user experience. Since applications don’t need to be modified to incorporate Apple Guide, you can do quite remarkable things without jeopardizing the way things work. With scriptable applications, you can incorporate AppleScript into your guide files and provide an integrated solution that performs many tasks for the user. When you do have the opportunity to make minor modifications to applications, you can provide a vast range of Apple Guide features. Even with an unscriptable and unmodified application, however, you can provide a range of assistance that will make your users very happy.

In a way, it’s a good thing that Apple Guide is so new. Many people have never seen it at all, and a goodly number have only read about it and seen screenshots. As an experiment, find someone who has never seen Apple Guide in action, and have them watch while you demo some simple part of the Macintosh Guide. The first time a coach mark is drawn, don’t watch the screen: watch the person’s face. They will smile.

Since 1984, our Macintosh computers have smiled at us. It’s time to return the favor.

For More Info

Jesse’s book, Real World Apple Guide, due out in April from M&T Books, has 400 pages and a CD-ROM to help you develop Apple Guide assistance. $39.95 at bookstores - ISBN 1-55851-429-5 if they have to order it - or you can call 1-800-488-5233 to order direct.

Additional docs are on Apple’s Mac OS SDK, including two articles, one from develop 18, and one from MacHack.

 
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