Progressive Disclosure and Hierarchy of Information
I am currently working on a wireframe for an embedded help pane and wrestling with the real estate constraints and information-prioritization issues that come with megabytes of information vying for a surface area roughly the size of an envelope.
The obvious solution is to not show everything at once in the panel, but to use the pane as a gateway into the content. Allow the user to navigate into and through the content by progressively disclosing greater detail or related topics.
The UA architectural issue is how to categorize and prioritize information so it can be appropriately displayed and disclosed. This requires that a taxonomy of presentation tiers be defined and that an ontology of pane elements be defined and mapped to the presentation tiers.
Start first by understanding how many layers of presentation options you will use and rank them into tiers. The following is an example of a presentation tier taxonomy:
Tier 1: Information that is displayed upon initial appearance of the pane without any interaction on the part of the user.
Tier 2: Information that is displayed within the original presentation by expanding the content. In other words, the pane's initial information remains, but new information is inserted. For example, a definition could be tier 2 information; the user clicks on a term in the text and the text expands to include the term's definition.
Tier 3: Information that replaces the information in the original pane. In essence, the pane's content is replaced with new content. One could slice this even finer by having Tier 3A that replaces a entire pane's content and Tier 3B that replaces just a section within the pane.
Tier 4: A new window is opened to display the content; the original embedded help pane stays intact.
Ontology of Elements
I just love having the opportunity to use the word ontology :-) I can only hope that I am using it reasonably correctly. I use it in a broad sense to mean what is the furniture, so to speak, you can put into a user assistance pane. The ontology will contain interaction devices such as search criteria entry fields, navigation devices, such as links, and information elements, such as headings, definitions, procedures, multimedia, etc.
This is the part I am working on now, defining that ontology and mapping the elements to their appropriate presentation tier.