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AODC Day 3: Help Authoring Tool Comparison

Two weeks ago I attended AODC 2010, the Australasian Online Documentation and Content conference. We were in Darwin, in Australia’s “Top End”. Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting my summaries of the conference sessions, derived from my notes taken during the presentations. All the credit goes to the presenter. Any mistakes or omissions are my own.

Matthew Ellison presented a number of excellent sessions at this conference. His Friday session was called “Help Authoring Tool Comparison”. He discussed what a help authoring tool (HAT) can do for us as technical writers, then did a detailed comparison of a few popular tools.

What a HAT can do for you

HATs hide the complexity and allow you to concentrate on the content. You don’t need to worry about coding and scripting, conditional tags and other mechanics under the hood.

HATs produce some very nice output, such as browser-based help (WebHelp), PDF and many other types. On the whole, HATs produce the tri-pane output format of online help. If that’s what you need, they make it very easy to do.

They provide help-specific features such as context sensitivity, indexing, dropdowns and related topics.

You can also use HATs for single sourcing.

In summary, HATs cater to our specific needs as technical writers.

Things that may count against a HAT

HATs tend to be proprietary and non-standard. For example, a HAT that supports DITA may not use compliant DITA. This may mean you’d find it difficult to migrate to a different tool. It’s a trade-off between the ease of use and the loss of flexibility.

Compared to a full CMS with XML management, HATs offer limited facilities for content re-use and content management.

Examples of HATs

Matthew emphasised that all the HATs he discussed are excellent tools. His presentation covered the following tools, which are the most popular of the HATs available:

  • Adobe RoboHelp (also TCS2, which contains a slightly different version of RoboHelp that offers better integration with FrameMaker)
  • Author-it
  • ComponentOne Doc-To-Help
  • EC Software Help & Manual – a really nice tool.
  • MadCap Flare
  • WebWorks ePublisher – This tool has been around a long time. It’s not an authoring tool, but rather converts content from one format to another.

Matthew gave us a list of the features that almost all HATs have in common. Then he discussed some criteria for selecting a HAT, examining a number of tools and analysing the strengths and weaknesses of each tool. He covered the following aspects of each tool:

  • A short description of the tool
  • Workflow
  • UI and usability
  • Key strengths
  • Key weaknesses
  • The tool’s own help

I didn’t have time to take notes on everything covered in the presentation. Here follow the notes that I did take.

Adobe RoboHelp

RoboHelp stores its content as XHTML. You work on topics, basically one topic per file. RoboHelp publishes to a number of different formats. The output to AIR Help and WebHelp are very good indeed.

I found this point interesting: If you want a printed document, Adobe recommends that you write your documents in Microsoft Word and link them to RoboHelp as the publishing engine. When printing, print the Word document. For other output formats, publish via Robohelp. You can print directly from RoboHelp, but the output is not great.

If you have TCS2 RoboHelp, you can link FrameMaker documents in the same way as Word documents. FrameMaker gives you a much richer print capability.

The RoboHelp UI and usability are good. RoboHelp goes to some pains to retain a Word-like UI (pre-2007 Word). The UI for linking and importing is not so good.

Other notes:

  • You cannot share resources (stylesheets, icons, snippets) across multiple projects.
  • The download file is very large.
  • RoboHelp’s own help is not all that great, chiefly because it contain features that you cannot create from RoboHelp itself. The information is also not very well structured.


Author-it stores its content in a single library in the database. You can connect to your own database: SQL Server or JET / SQL Server Express (free). On the minus side, Author-it stores the content in a proprietary rather than a standard storage format.

Author-it offers a very powerful capability for content re-use.

You can publish to a number of different output formats. All print outputs are generated via Microsoft Word. This can be seen as clumsy and a problematic dependency. It does produce excellent Word documents.

The UI is very complex, requiring a steep learning curve. It has a very modern look and feel.

Author-it has a number of capabilities, probably the longest list of all the HATs. Some of the add-ons are very powerful, such as authoring memory which tracks duplicate content. It has good support for localisation. Another feature offers web-based authoring too.

The help system is pretty good, and is recognisably generated from Author-it itself. It’s also mirrored on the web, so you can find the information via Google too.

ComponentOne Doc-To-Help

This is the original HAT. Originally the idea was to work in Word and convert to Doc-To-Help. But now you can also choose to edit in XHTML using the Doc-To-Help WYSIWYG editor.

To create styles, you actually create Word .dot files. At first use, this seems a bit odd. Doc-To-Help generates CSS from the .dot files.

It also has a database where you can store metadata.

Doc-To-Help offers a number of output formats.

The UI has improved over the years. It’s a professional-looking, ribbon-based UI.

Doc-To-Help has some cool features, such as the ability to create relationships between topics, similar to the way Author-it does.

It also integrates with Microsoft Sandcastle for documenting class libraries based on comments in the code.

Doc-To-Help’s own help is good.

EC Software Help & Manual

Help & Manual has a very nice WYSIWYG editor, where you edit in XML. It has its own DTD.

It imports content nicely. If importing from Word, save to RTF first. There’s no FrameMaker or DITA support.

The UI is very nice. Of all the tools, it’s the easiest and most comfortable to use (even though ribbon-based). The UI is driven by the table of contents. It offers a simple user experience, yet there are some good advanced features which you can find if you look for them.

One great advanced feature is the skins that you can use to achieve consistency across projects. You can also share resources, such as style sheets, across projects.

MadCap Flare

All editing in Flare is in XHTML, using the WYSIWYG editor.

Flare does a very good job of producing print and help output formats. There’s also a WebHelp Mobile output

You can input DITA, as well as other formats.

The UI is fairly easy to learn, but has some stumbling blocks. You do need to understand CSS to get the most out of it.

Flare has the most excellent help system Matthew has ever seen.

Offering your users the ability to collaborate on your help pages: As an add-on, you can buy the collaboration module so that users can comment on the topics and read each others’ comments.

WebWorks ePublisher

Note that ePublisher is not an authoring tool. There is no editor. You use it to publish content from Word, FrameMaker or DITA to a large number of output formats.

ePublisher offers a large number of mappings that you use map from your input styles to your output styles.

The UI and usability is slightly confusing. There are actually two products involved. ePublisher Express is very simple. That’s the one you use to publish the output. ePublisher Pro is where you create the mappings, and the UI is more complex.

The WebHelp output is not very pretty or professional. The TOC (table of contents) output is fixed by the TOC of the source document.

ePublisher’s own web-based help, published on a wiki, is just bad. On the other hand, the local help that you get when you install the product is much better.

Final comments from Matthew

Always test drive with real data before buying a tool. All the products discussed in this presentation are great tools!

My conclusion

This was a very thorough and in-depth analysis of the features, strengths and weaknesses of the most popular HATs around. I didn’t have time to take enough notes to do it justice. In particular, Matthew showed a useful workflow diagram for each tool. Thank you Matthew for another great presentation.

Using a wiki for online help

Online help — it’s a technical writer’s dream. We all want to design and write online help systems, and we all know that context-sensitive help is the way to go. Can you do it on a wiki?

Yes 🙂 I wrote an article on the Atlassian News site this week, illustrating how we’ve used our Confluence wiki to provide context-sensitive help in the latest FishEye and Crucible software releases. Have a read. It’s got some pretty pictures as well as the technical stuff 😉

Clarifying my terminology: By ‘context-sensitive help’, I mean that when you click a help link on an application screen, you get the instructions directly related to that particular screen. Also at a deeper level, when you click a help icon next to a field you get help on that specific field. We’ve provided both these levels of help, as described in the above article. Another type of contextual help is when you hover your mouse over a field and a short description pops up in a kind of bubble. That’s usually called a ‘tool tip’, and is not what I mean here.

I’ve written a number of online help systems for various companies, using a variety of tools. My favourites were Help and Manual and RoboHelp. I’ve also dabbled with HDK (the precursor to XDK) and with Microsoft’s ‘raw’ HTML Help editor. And now I’m using Confluence wiki.

What’s the difference between a wiki and a help authoring tool? Well, there’s a big difference, of course. A wiki is essentially a collaboration platform — your online documents become a place where everyone goes to find information, share their own tips with others, and pick up the latest updates. A help authoring tool is tailored towards building a documentation set which is essentially static (even if you update it every day, it’s still not a discussion platform) but which has all the bells and whistles of an integrated online help system.

Most help authoring tools provide the following functions. You’ll probably have trouble finding a wiki which supplies these functions to the same degree:

  • Fully customisable table of contents, where you can put topics in the order you want, omit topics, or make a single topic appear more than once.
  • Integrated keyword index.
  • Integrated glossary.
  • Navigational tools to make topic browsing easier, such as the ‘browse sequences’ provided by RoboHelp.
  • Topic linkage tools, such as the ‘next topic’, ‘previous topic’ and ‘related topics’ tools which are built into some help authoring tools.
  • Generation of HTML Help (.chm) and WinHelp output files.
  • Workflow support (draft, review, publish).
  • Integration with a source control tool such as VSS, or RoboHelp’s inbuilt check-in check-out manager.
  • Automatic generation of topic IDs, which you can hand over to a developer for plugging into the code to generate context-sensitive help links.
  • Sophisticated topic templates.

That’s a long list. So what does a wiki provide, in terms of usefulness for online help?

  • A wiki page is just a URL — so you can link to the page directly from your application screen. (Read my Atlassian News blog to see how we’re doing it with Confluence.)
  • Wiki pages are continuously being updated and enhanced by technical writers, support staff and even customers who have useful tips to share. So when someone clicks the help link, they get the most up-to-the minute information possible.
  • Wikis allow you to embed multimedia goodies such as images and Flash movies.
  • You should be able to generate PDF, HTML and XML versions of your wiki pages.
  • A good wiki has a good search engine.
  • Some wikis provide version control — all changes are tracked, and you can see who made each change or even revert to a previous version of a page.
  • A wiki often provides tools for runtime integration with other software — many wikis allow you to install plugins or addons which display information directly from another platform. For example, a wiki page can show a list of bug fixes drawn dynamically from an issue tracking system like JIRA.
  • Some wikis allow blogging as part of the wiki platform. So your documentation page can embed a list of the latest blog posts related to the topic of the page. The blog posts will always be the most recent as at the time the user views the wiki page.
  • Your wiki is sure to have a number of other interesting features which you can use to work around some of the shortfalls listed above. If you’re interested, take a look at my previous posts on using wikis for technical documentation.

In short, wikis are different. They’re not necessarily better or worse — it depends what you need for your documentation system. Wikis are fairly new, so they’re developing all the time. I’m having fun riding the wave 🙂

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