Interview with Jason Nichols: AIRHelp—taking documentation to the next level

Think about it, for the last 15 years, Help hasn’t changed much, the traditional tri-pane format has remained static and hasn’t kept up with trending Web 2.0 technologies, and as a result it does not meet today’s end-user expectations.  

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What we need is a revolution in user assistance, we need not think of Help as a box that needs to be checked before a product ships, but rather as a Social opportunity to engage with our users and ultimately as a way to build communities around our products and services.

Enter Adobe AIRHelp by RoboHelp!

Don’t think of AIRHelp merely as another output format, think of Adobe AIR as an innovative platform on which to build engaging user assistance experiences and think of AIRHelp as the delivery mechanism.

While AIRHelp was introduced in RoboHelp 8 and thus it’s relatively new, the idea is resonating well with our customers and it’s my goal to showcase on this blog, what our customers are doing with this new platform through short interviews like this one.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Nichols from ReadSoft, and I was very impressed and excited about all the great insight he shared about AIRHelp. I did my best to underline what I thought was the best sound-bites from the interview.

I hope you enjoy reading this interview and if you want to learn more about AIRHelp, or want to share what you are doing with it, please email me at rjacquez(at)adobe.com.


RJ: Jason, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I’ve gotten to know you well on Twitter, but for my readers who don’t know you, please tell us a little about yourself.

Jason: I am an Information Developer and Trainer at ReadSoft, a software company based in Sweden, which specialises in document automation. I come from Sydney, Australia and have lived in Europe (Sweden and previously, Germany) for the last nine years. I have been working as an information developer since 1998 (with a short spell as a network technician in between). Prior to ReadSoft I worked at Yahoo! in the development of Yahoo! Go. I am married and have a daughter who is nearly two years. I am also chairman of the Helsingborg Comedy Club.


RJ: As an Information Developer and Trainer, can you share with us what Adobe tools you and your team currently use and the deliverables you create as it related to Documentation?

Jason: The Technical Communication team at ReadSoft has been using RoboHelp and Acrobat since 1997. In September 2009 we purchased Adobe Technical Communication Suite 2. We use RoboHelp 8 to generate HTML Help (CHM), WebHelp (HTML), and just recently also AIRHelp and Word documents. We use Acrobat to create the final PDFs. Our documentation also includes screencasts and images produced with Captivate and Photoshop.


RJ: Glad to hear that you are using our entire Suite of Tools. Let’s talk about Adobe AIRHelp. When did you first learn about it and how are you using it internally?

Jason: We first heard about AIRHelp in June 2009. We were looking into the new features of RoboHelp 8 and read AIRHelp was a new output format. In the course of this research, I came across a recording of one of your eLearning sessions: “Building Web 2.0 Help using Adobe AIR and RoboHelp 8.” Well, after watching this, we just had to try it! :-) We started building our first two pilots late in 2009—one, a new Help; the other, an import of a existing guide from Microsoft Word. We now have five pilots in production. They are pilots in the sense that they are for internal use only. We are testing AIRHelp’s commenting feature, it’s ability to display the latest topic versions when online, as well as the ability for us to push out entire AIRHelp application updates. We’ve just started using the commenting feature to have drafts reviewed.


RJ: In your opinion, what are some of the most compelling and unique features in AIRHelp that other formats, such as CHM and WebHelp do not have?

Jason: CHM and WebHelp are static files/pages. An author writes the Help and it is included in an application or posted to a website. There is a large disconnect between the author and the readership, which is very strange because the reader depends on the author for answers. If you were reading a document written by someone who works in the same office as you, you’d probably go up to him/her later with questions and points you would like more information about. This does not and cannot happen if you’re creating just static Help files, to the detriment of your readers. You’re erecting a barrier between them and yourself. An email address for feedback doesn’t even go half-way to bridging this divide.  Further, why should the author have all the answers? Or the engineers and other persons the author gets information from? The number of readers is usually much greater and their combined body of knowledge is huge. AIRHelp, with it’s commenting feature, is the first step to tapping into that knowledge and making it available for everyone, making the Help more helpful. It’s something akin to a discussion board or blog commenting, in a Help application

AIRHelp also gives readers access to the latest version of the Help. As AIRHelp is installed on the reader’s computer, authors can push out updates without having to wait for a new product release to bundle the Help with. In contrast, once a CHM file is shipped, the author kisses it goodbye and starts working on the next project. The poor reader!

AIRHelp also looks great. It’s hard to make your documentation look modern, let alone cutting-edge, when you have to churn out CHM files, which have been around for 13 years!

We like AIRHelp for other reasons as well. The advantage that AIRHelp has is that it’s an Adobe AIR application, which is an exciting new platform to provide rich, interactive experiences to users. Check out Wired magazine’s electronic version using AIR. Brilliant! I really can’t wait for the next version of AIRHelp that Adobe releases.


RJ: I’m glad you brought up the auto-update feature in Adobe AIR, because I think this is one of the most compelling and unique features of Adobe AIR in general. Companies like TweetDeck, which make a Twitter client based on Adobe AIR, are implementing this feature in order to notify their users whenever new updates are available. Similarly with AIRHelp, this will ensure that end-users are always using the very latest version of the Help.

Can you share how this has improved the overall experience for your pilot projects and what feedback how you received from your end-users?

Jason: Our users have been pleasantly surprised. Prior to AIRHelp, two issues that cropped up every now and again were: First, is the Help/document I downloaded a couple of months ago the latest version? Second, if it isn’t, where can I get the update? The auto-update feature solves these problems. Once the Help is installed, users always know they have the latest version on their computers.


RJ: You mentioned above the aesthetics of AIRHelp and pointed out how this differs from the look-and-feel of the old MS HTML Help (chm) format. I’m hearing from customers that they see AIRHelp as a viable replacement for CHM, what’s your take on this?

Jason: I think AIRHelp combines the practicality of bundling a CHM file with an application (using context sensitivity for example) and the up-to-date and community benefits of online documentation and support sites. In this regard, AIRHelp is definitely a successor to CHM. Once the technical implementation tasks have been resolved (AIRHelp is an installable, unlike CHM), there’s no reason to keep producing CHM. May it rest in peace.


RJ: Good point. In a recent interview, our CTO mentioned that as of now, there are over 300M installation of Adobe AIR, so I think this bodes well for the adoption of AIRHelp. Let’s go back and talk about the recent collaboration between Adobe and Wired, which you mentioned above.

When I first learned about it, all I could think of was AIRHelp on Tablets. Recently we also announced that AIR would work on mobile devices, starting with Google Android devices. What impact do you think this will have on mobile Documentation moving forward as more and more users will access the internet via mobile devices?

Jason: A large percentage of technical communicators are already writing documentation that must be presented on different platforms. Most software applications support more than one operating system. Take Spotify as an example, they have apps—and therefore must have corresponding documentation—for PC, Mac, iPhone, Android and Symbian. And with the further development of mobile devices—of all shapes and sizes—the challenge is to present the same and similar content on all of them. How? For years I was—and still am—a firm believer in XML and using single-sourcing to pubish to different formats. But the problem of publishing to divergent electronic mediums can also be solved by generating a format that can be understood by all. And this is another advantage of AIRHelp, and I’m really glad Android has been added to the list of supported platforms. Admittedly, you also have the option of using PDF, HTML, or Java, but AIRHelp trumps all of them—it provides a much richer user experience. And it’s only in version 1.0!

I don’t think AIRHelp should be seen as being restricted to documentation for software applications. I can also envisage AIRHelp being used by technicians working in the field using their mobile devices to refer to manuals and instructions, but in a more interactive way, using formats incorporating videos and 3D that we’ve only just started to develop.


RJ: I agree and my team and I are making sure we also expose AIRHelp to industries beyond Technical Documentation.

Let’s talk about the commenting feature in AIRHelp. I saw a Tweet this morning from you, sharing that you had just finished your first review using AIRHelp and that you had submitted 122 comments. Your colleague @bruhacsreadsoft has gotten 60+ review comments and is responding to them using AIRHelp as well. You also mentioned that you used to use an MS Word Table in the past. Can you share with us a bit about the old way of conducting reviews and the benefits you are seeing already from using AIRHelp’s collaboration features?

Jason: Our peer review form in Microsoft Word was just a table with three columns: Help topic title, reviewer comments, and writer feedback comments. The reviewer wrote the comments and sent them to the writer. (Peer reviewers never do changes themselves; we think it’s better for the writer themselves to implement them.) The writer could subsequently add comments and questions for the reviewer. For our new AIRHelp projects, we tested submitting comments directly in the Help. Actually, it just seemed like the natural thing to do because there was already a commenting feature in AIRHelp. Even if you’re generating some other kind of Help output, you could still use AIRHelp purely to conduct reviews. It’s just simplier. As a reviewer, I just went from topic to topic, adding my comments for each one. The author syncs the comments to get the updates. This is especially helpful for large projects, because you don’t have to wait for the editor to finish reviewing all topics—he/she can update topics as the comments come in. The author can also add his/her own comments and questions directly in the Help, which the reviewer can then see and respond to.

The AIRHelp comments feature is also very useful when you have multiple reviews, as we often do: a peer review by a writer and a technical review by a developer or consultant. Each can see the other’s comments and may get ideas for other review points based on what the other person has written. The potential for discussion is there. The review process is more interactive and hopefully this benefits the resulting Help.


RJ: I really like your idea of recommending to customers that they use AIRHelp to conduct reviews, even if they may not end up publishing in this format.

In my experience, most people I speak to, initially think that they need to be programmers to develop Help based on Adobe AIR and that they need to understand Adobe Flex and know how to work with the AIR SDK, basically do lots of coding. Can you share your experience generating AIRHelp in terms of what it takes to generate it in RoboHelp and whether you need to be a coder?

Jason: That’s interesting—a colleague from marketing, when I first showed him one of our AIRHelp projects—also asked if we had produced it using Adobe Flex. No—AIRHelp is as easy to produce as any other output format in RoboHelp. It’s just another Single Source Layout (SSL). There are some new options for the AIRHelp SSL for comments, searches, and so on—nothing out of the ordinary. So once the SSL is configured, you can generate the AIRHelp. You don’t need to code anything. You just need to be familiar with RoboHelp. And even if you’re not, well, it’s still pretty easy.


RJ: Well said. Is there anything I missed that you’d like to add in closing about AIRHelp?

Also, we have been using Acrobat.com’s Buzzword, our wordprocessor in the cloud, for our interview, and I’m interested in hearing your overall experience with Buzzword and if you see ways in which Technical Communicators can use Buzzword for collaborative projects?

Jason: I was really glad when I found out that there was a replacement for CHM, and especially one built on such a forward-looking technology like Adobe AIR. It’s also brought more enthusiasm to our Technical Communication team, with the promise of taking documentation to the next level. As I said, I’m really looking forward to future versions of AIRHelp.

Regarding Buzzword, I like it a lot. It’s very “clean.” What I mean by that is that not only are documents stored in a central location that everyone can access via a web browser, you also don’t have to open another application to view and make edits, and multiple users can perform these actions simultaneously without waiting for the other person to check-in a file. So it’s very suited to documents that are co-authored.


RJ: It has been fun talking about AIRHelp and RoboHelp with you and I thank you for your time.

Jason: A pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity.


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