The Story of Help in Visual Studio 2010 (Part 3)

This is the final installment in a three-part series about the Visual Studio 2010 help system. Part 1 offers a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of our new help system. Part 2 is an overview of the help experience delivered with Visual Studio 2010. Part 3 offers a preview of changes coming to the help experience in Visual Studio 2010 Service Pack 1 (SP1).

Part 3 – Help Viewer Improvements in SP1

Since the release of Help Viewer 1.0, we’ve been talking to developers, listening to your feedback and observing the use of Visual Studio help in our usability labs. I’m now going to give you a sneak preview of the next set of improvements we’re planning for the Visual Studio 2010 help experience.

As I described in Part 2 of this series, the LEX team has made significant progress towards addressing issues in previous versions of the Visual Studio help system. However, our decision to use the browser to provide offline help received some strong feedback, particularly from developers who had built up a lot of muscle memory with Document Explorer (dexplore.exe). The central theme of this criticism was that they found themselves less productive using the offline viewer in Visual Studio 2010. In response to this feedback we’ve made a number of changes to the help experience which will be delivered in Visual Studio 2010 Service Pack 1 (SP1).

New Features in Visual Studio SP1

We’ve made three major changes to the Help Viewer in SP1. First, we’ve abandoned the browser-as-local-help-viewer and implemented a simple client application for offline help. The help window is no longer lost in the set of browser tabs you have open and the help application icon can be easily located in the taskbar. F1 Help re-uses the currently active tab instead of creating a parade of open tabs that must be manually managed. The help application can be sized and placed anywhere on your desktop and retains its size and placement across sessions. The navigation panel width is resizable and it can be placed to the right or the left of the content.

Second, with the flexibility we gain from building a client application, we’ve re-introduced many of the productivity/efficiency features found in Document Explorer. The viewer features four navigation tabs: a fully-expandable table of contents that can be explored without reloading the current topic, a keyword index, a Favorites and History tab, and a search results pane. The search results pane allows you to refine your search queries without losing your current topic context. In addition, context menus and shortcut keys allow you to access features quickly without excessive need for a mouse.

Finally, without the security restrictions of the browser, we’ve improved the ease with which you can manage local content. A direct link to the Help Library Manager is built into the viewer window. We provide improved guidance if you’ve never downloaded local documentation or if you press F1 on a topic for which local help is not installed.

Paul O’Rear, a Program Manager from the LEX team, has created a visual walkthrough of the new features in our SP1 Help Viewer. This is an early build but I want you to give you a look at what we’re working on:

While we were constrained in the amount of change we could introduce in a service pack, we believe these improvements will address many of the issues our power developers had with the RTM viewer.

For users who prefer to consume online help, the help experience will continue to display in your default browser. The largest benefit over just consuming the online MSDN Library via your search engine of choice is that we enable F1 Help.

Why did we make these changes?

We made these changes because you asked for them. In addition, we’ve adjusted our philosophy towards the help experience. In Visual Studio 2010, we focused on keeping things simple and standard and embracing the Web. Moving forward:

For online help, we fully embrace web technologies while providing in-product contextual help and continuing to invest in great experiences for the broad base of developers.

For offline help, we provide an efficient experience that leverages the capabilities of Windows for developers who have sophisticated productivity needs.

When will the new local Help Viewer be available?

Our plan is to deliver the new Help Viewer as part of Visual Studio Service Pack 1 (SP1). I’m not able to talk about SP1 dates at this time but I expect to provide more details in the not too distant future.

How do I provide feedback on the new viewer?

There are three main ways to provide your impressions of this new viewer:

  1. Leave a comment at the bottom of this blog post
  2. Send us an email at
  3. Share your thoughts on the Developer Documentation and Help System Forum

In Closing

Moving the help system forward has turned out to be quite an adventure. We’ve made some mistakes along the way but I think we’ve also gotten a lot of things right. We’ve set twin goals of both addressing the issues with the previous systems and enabling new online and re-use scenarios for our broader community. As always, we appreciate your feedback on how we’re doing.

Installments in this series:

1 – Why A New Help System?
2 – Overview of Help Viewer 1.0
3 – Help Viewer Improvements in SP1

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