As mentioned in our CEO’s recent blog post, we have just completed a project in development for some time — a dynamic help system for our Webmail clients. Since I was the coder on this project, I’m here to attempt to explain what it is, and why this is a perfect example of the direction Webmail.us is going. If you don’t have an email account with us (or your reseller hasn’t enabled the help system on their version), you can check out the new help system at our one-click demo.
Click on the gray question mark at the top right corner of the Webmail application, and you can start navigating through the help system. Actually, ‘navigating’ is a bad choice of words, because it always makes me think of weathering choppy waters in a run-down skiff… perhaps ‘teleporting’ is more appropriate. Play around a bit and you’ll notice that there’s no more reloading of the webpage and waiting while the link you clicked on takes you to the right place. Now, it happens almost instantaneously.
The recently-coined name for this technique is ‘AJAX’, and it’s an abbreviation for ‘make Steve jump through a lot of hoops so the user’s experience is faster and smoother than ever before’. I think it’s an apt description, and what is truly incredible is that we can use this programming style on every part of our application, speeding it up and making it more responsive. So long as our users have a fairly up-to-date browser (a must-have in these days of security concerns), they can take advantage of this.
Keeping Help Helpful
Of course, this help system isn’t just designed as a vehicle to show off AJAX, but rather to improve user experience by giving quick answers to questions. Certain pages in our system, like the Inbox, link to the main page of the help system. Other pages (try ‘Account Options’, or when composing a message) will actually link you to a specific help topic or set of options, depending on what you were doing. Our technical writer and graphic designer also put in a lot of effort to make sure that it is easily usable, and the help topics are straightforward and very clear.
I encourage everyone to try it out, and look forward to seeing more of this technology in our future releases.
(If you are interested in the technical nuts-and-bolts of how AJAX works, check out this article. It gives a pretty good summary of the entire technology.)