Create custom technical support Help files with Microsoft's HTML Help Workshop

Answering a technical question for a user is great the first time around. Answering the same question again and again becomes a burden. Find out how to use Microsoft's HTML Help Workshop to create a Web-based solution to users' common questions.

As a support professional, you probably receive the same questions from users over and over again. To save time and effort, you’ve probably created FAQ documents that you send out to users via e-mail. And because e-mail messages tend to get misplaced or deleted, you probably find yourself sending out the same FAQ over and over again. An alternate solution involves using Microsoft’s HTML Help Workshop to create standard, compiled Help files that you place on a local server. You can then send out shortcuts to the Help files that users can add to their desktops or Start menus where they’ll be readily accessible.

This solution has two advantages: First, having the file on a server means that if you ever have to add or revise information, you only have to do so once and the update will instantly be available to everyone on the network. Second, everyone who uses the Windows operating system is familiar with the Help file format and understands that a Help file is a source for getting answers to questions. As such, they’ll naturally turn to it for information in times of need.

I’ll show you how to obtain and use the HTML Help Workshop, which is a free download, to create basic, but effective Help files that you can use to distribute FAQ information to the users on your network.

Downloading and installing the HTML Help Workshop
To download the HTML Help Workshop, point your browser to the HTML Help Downloads page on the Microsoft Download Center site. There, you’ll see several download options. If you’re running Windows 9x or Windows NT, you must first download the HTML Help Update Package (Hhupd.exe), which will update the HTML Help system to the latest version. You can then download the HTML Help Workshop file (Htmlhelp.exe). If you’re running Windows 2000 or Windows XP, you don’t need the update package, and you can simply download the workshop.

Installing the HTML Help Workshop is a snap—just run the executable file to begin the installation procedure and accept all of the default settings. Installation requires about 4MB of hard drive space.

Organizing your information
Once you’ve downloaded and installed the HTML Help Workshop, you’re ready to get started. The first order of business is to organize your information. To do so, you’ll want to create your FAQ list with your word processor so you’ll have the freedom to easily organize your thoughts. But don’t bother with any formatting, as you’ll need to save the file in plain text format. Once you have your FAQ organized, you simply copy and paste the contents of the FAQ into the HTML Help Workshop.

For example, let’s say your organization recently rolled out Windows XP and you’ve been receiving a lot of questions about the animated character in the Search Companion. The three basic questions people have been asking are:
  • How do I turn off the animated character?
  • How do I turn on the animated character?
  • Are there other animated characters to choose from?

Let’s further suppose that you’ve already created a FAQ that answers these questions by explaining the steps involved in performing each of these operations and saved it as a text document, which you now want to convert to a Help file.

Creating the Topics files
HTML Help files start out as a set of documents called Topics. In the example above, each question and answer in the FAQ will be converted to a separate Topics file. Once you have HTML Help Workshop up and running, just click the New button on the toolbar. You’ll see the New dialog box that prompts you to select one of the available file types. The HTML Help Workshop program requires that each of your topics reside in an HTML file, so select HTML File from the list and click OK.

At this point, you’ll see an HTML document template appear in the window with a dialog box above it prompting you to enter the topic’s title. In the case of the example FAQ, the actual question will serve as the topic title. You’ll type the first question in the HTML Title dialog box as shown in Figure A.

Figure A
When converting a FAQ into a Help file, you can use a question as the topic title.

When you click OK, you’ll see the insertion pointer appear in the document after the <BODY> tag, and you can paste the answer to the question into the document. To properly format the document, you may want to use some of the basic HTML formatting tags. For instance, you might want to highlight the answer title with bold tags and separate the steps with paragraph tags as shown in Figure B.

Figure B
You'll paste the answer in the body of the HTML file and can apply basic formatting tags if you wish.

If you’re unfamiliar with HTML formatting tags, you can find detailed information by pulling down the Help menu and selecting the HTML Tag Reference command. When you finish, click the Save button, save the file as Q1.htm, and then close the document window. Repeat these steps for each of the questions in your FAQ, naming the remaining documents Q2.htm, Q3.htm, and so on.

After you create the main HTML files for your Help file, you’ll need to create a title page. This page really only needs one descriptive line in the body. For our example, I’ll use the phrase Change animated character settings in Search Companion, and save the file as T1.htm.

Creating the table of contents
Now that you’ve created topic files for each of the questions in the FAQ and the title page, you’ll create a table of contents for your Help file. Click the New button on the toolbar, and when you see the New dialog box, choose Table of Contents from the list and click OK.

At this point, you’ll see a blank document in the window and a new vertical toolbar on the left. Click the Insert A Heading button on the vertical toolbar. When you see the Table Of Contents Entry dialog box, type “Search Companion” in the Entry Title text box and click the Add button. When you see the Path or URL dialog box, type “T1.htm” in the File or URL text box and click OK. To continue, click OK again.

Next, click the Insert A Page button on the vertical toolbar. When you see the prompt dialog box asking if you want to insert the entry at the beginning of the table of contents, click No. You’ll then see the Table of Contents Entry dialog box again. This time, type the first question into the Entry Title text box and click the Add button. When you see the Path or URL dialog box, type “Q1.htm” in the File or URL text box and click OK. Then, click OK again to continue.

You can then repeat these steps to create page entries for each of the questions in your FAQ. Save the file as TechHelp.hhc. At this point, the table of contents for your Help file will look similar to the one shown in Figure C.

Figure C
After you create page entries in the table of contents for each topic in your FAQ, you can see the Help file's basic format unfold.

Creating the project file
After you create the topic and table of contents files, you must create the project file. The project file is generated via a wizard and will contain a list of all the files that the HTML Help Workshop will use for compiling the Help file.

To begin, click the New button on the toolbar. When you see the New dialog box, choose Project from the list, and click OK. When the New Project wizard appears, follow the screens, which prompt you to give the project a name and select the topic, title, and table of contents files.

When you finish with the wizard, you’ll see the contents of the project file, as shown in Figure D.

Figure D
The project file contains a list of all the files the HTML Help Workshop uses for the compilation procedure.

Compiling the Help file
Now that you’ve created the project file, you’re ready to compile the Help file. Click the Save All Files And Compile button on the vertical toolbar to begin the compilation operation.

When the compilation operation is complete, you’ll see a report in the window that indicates the success of the operation, as shown in Figure E. If there were any errors in the compilation operation, you’d see error messages that describe the problems. At this point, you’re finished creating your Help file and can close the HTML Help Workshop.

Figure E
When the compilation operation is complete, you'll see a report in the HTML Help Workshop's window.

Testing your Help file
After you’ve created your first Help file, you can access the folder containing the compiled HTML Help file and test it. The Help file will have the same name as you gave to the project file, but the extension will be CHM. In our example, I named the file TechHelp, but you can easily rename the CHM file to whatever you want.

To test your Help file, simply double-click the CHM file. When you do, you’ll see a two-paned window with the topic titles on the left and the topic contents on the right, as shown in Figure F.

Figure F
Once you compile the Help file, you can test it by double-clicking the CHM file.

Revising your Help file
If you ever need to add, edit, or remove information from your Help file, you can do so by running the HTML Help Workshop to edit your existing topic files or create new ones. You’ll then create a new table of contents file as well as a new project file and then recompile it.

Investigating HTML Help Workshop's additional features
When it comes to distributing FAQs to the users on a large network, you’ll find that creating Help files with Microsoft HTML Help Workshop is an easy and effective way to get the word out to your users. The Help file I created for my example was very basic. However, as you work with the HTML Help Workshop, you’ll discover that the program is packed with additional features that you can use to create more exciting Help files for your users. For more information on what you can do, check out Microsoft's customized Help Web site.


Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.

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