By Colum McAndrew.
One of the big bonuses for new users of RoboHelp is the familiarity of its user interface. If you use Microsoft Word, opening up RoboHelp should not be that much of a shock. Yes there is a learning curve, like any new application, but it feels strangely comfortable. What is equally reassuring is that despite numerous versions, incarnations and company acquisitions, the basic user interface has remained largely unchanged. Some may see this a negative but as a RoboHelp user since the late 1990s, I’d say why change something that isn’t broke? RoboHelp 9, the latest version released by Adobe Systems, is being heralded as a major version, so what does it include?
As the senior member in a team of five Technical Writers spread across three locations, managing our project resources is a major issue. If we change our style sheet, the company changes its corporate look and feel, or we change a skin to add a custom button, this change has to be applied across each and every help system we maintain. In the past we’ve managed this to a degree by having a blank RoboHelp project in our source control system. This only goes so far as existing projects are unaffected. In RoboHelp 9 there is a better solution.
RoboHelp 8 had a Resources Manager pod where you could store some commonly used elements inside your RoboHelp projects. However it had in my opinion some fairly severe limitations that made it next to useless. For a start you were limited to only certain file types and there was no dynamic link between the files stored there and their usage inside your projects. In RoboHelp 9 these issues have been resolved. Having the ability to store a file type in the shared location and for it to be dynamically linked to the project, makes the managing of resources a breeze. If a change is required, as long as it is made in the shared location, it is automatically applied to each and every project where it is used. This makes this a must use feature in a multi-author or multi project environment.
Existing RoboHelp users who take even a cursory look around RoboHelp 9 will notice a new “Review” menu item. Can this be what you think? Yes it can. A workflow has been created to send your project content for review. From the menu you just create a PDF of the required content, naturally you can choose which topics to include, and send it for review. This uses Adobe’s Acrobat code as part of the RoboHelp package to allow reviewers to add comments directly to your PDF. However the real beauty is that the reviewers can do so using the free Acrobat Reader application (version 9 or later). There is no need for them to have an Adobe Acrobat licence.
Once all comments have been made, the author imports them via the Review menu. When they do so a summary of the imported comments is given and the comments are displayed inside the relevant topics. One particularly good feature of this is that the comments appear exactly the same as in Microsoft Word’s track changes feature. The familiar cross hatches and colour coding is all there. All that is left for the author to do is accept or reject each comment.
One additional feature of the review workflow is the ability to send the PDF for review via the Adobe Acrobat cloud. Having an account for the Acrobat.com cloud is free and allows you to setup shared reviews. This could be quite useful if you have several SMEs, as it enables them all to add comments to a single document and see what each other has written. The Adobe cloud has some additional benefits, but a shared review does mean the reviewers and the author have to have an account. This could be useful for some, particularly if SMEs are in a different location or time zone.
Dynamic User Centric Content (DUCC)
Dynamic user what? This new feature allows a user of your help content to filter on the content appropriate to their needs. For example maybe you have a policy and procedure help file that covers different regions or countries. In such cases, the policies and procedures may differ depending on where the end user is. For practicality reasons, it is likely that the content for all those users would need to be in the same RoboHelp project, so how is this handled?
The help file has a drop down menu from which the user can select a value (e.g. language, region, country). As a value is selected, the content relevant to it is displayed. As all content is maintained inside the same RoboHelp project, it is tagged to say to what category it belongs to. DUCC has been called, “Conditional Build Tags on steroids.” This is a good description as they work in much the same way. The different categories are defined in the properties of the Single Source Layout and the rest is done as if by magic.
If you are wondering what this all looks like for the end user, the chances are that if you already have a new version of another Adobe product installed, you’ve seen it already. The Adobe Community Help application shipped with all new Adobe products (including RoboHelp 9) utilises this exact functionality. For example if you load the RoboHelp 9 help, the Adobe Community Help application starts with the RoboHelp help displayed. However if have other Adobe products installed, for example the Adobe Technical Communications Suite, a dropdown allows you to switch to the help file of the other products. All of this without the need to have the application open.
The only minor issue I can see with this functionality is that it can only be used with WebHelp or AIRHelp output. I guess Microsoft HTML Help is doing the impersonation of a dying swan these days, although it is still widely used. Additionally Microsoft’s HTML Help Compiler hasn’t been updated in ages. This may explain why this feature is not available for CHM files but the omission from WebHelp Pro output is an even bigger minus. Coming from someone who uses WebHelp Pro output published to the RoboHelp Server application and a CHM backup, this is a real shame.
External Content Search
In today’s world of web 2.0, help systems are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic. Users demand better and more varied content. This can be a problem if for example documenting an application with any number of uses. In these scenarios it is not uncommon for the documentation to be generic enough to be applied across a range of industries, yet not specific to a particular user base. Now let’s say there is a particular website, managed externally from the help system, that contains useful information about how your application can be applied by a specific user base. Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to link to this from your help?
Using the external content search capability of RoboHelp 9, you can enter specific search terms linked to specific website URLs. What this means is that when these keywords are searched for, the results include not only content included in your help system but also the content located at the specified external URL.
You must have been living in a cave over the last few years if you have failed to notice the sheer number of hand held devices on the market these days. As a PDA user since the early days of Psion, I’ve watched with a growing sense of excitement at how the boundaries between a hand held PDA and your humble mobile phone have become increasingly blurred. With the arrival of devices like the Kindle and iPad the boundaries haven’t become so much blurred as non-existent.
With this comes the issue of displaying help content. The larger screen real estate makes these types of devices really useful for engineers and others in the field to store their documentation. I even read recently that airline pilots were asking for them rather than having to carry around their hefty airplane manuals. Maybe those large hefty blank pilot cases you see them with could well be a thing of the past.
RoboHelp 9 has for the first time a new menu item designed specifically to produce ePub output. Users of RoboHelp’s Single Source Layouts will know how quick and easy they are to use. The ePub one is no different as when it has finished you’ll have your output to view on any ePub enabled device. There is some set-up involved with the ePub format which includes:
- Downloading some ePub resources from the web.
- Creating a separate style sheet containing some specific formatting required by ePub.
- Ensuring no unsupported effects exist in your project (e.g. DHTML).
By the way ePub functionality was available in RoboHelp 8 but only by using a script in the Adobe ExtendScript application that came with RoboHelp. This application still forms part of RoboHelp and can be a useful addition if you are a keen scripter.
Previewing Web Output
One of the issues with generating Web based output is that you have no control over the browser that the end user uses. As each browser has its own rendering idiosyncrasies, creating output that “works” as intended can be problematic. In the past the only way to check how something would look was to generate the output, launch the relevant browser and test. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could preview your topic inside the different browsers from inside RoboHelp before you generated? RoboHelp 9 does just that with all common browsers supported.
AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) is a preparatory help format that lets developers create rich internet ready applications that can run outside of a browser. Not only that but when run inside a browser, they work identically regardless of which browser is being used. It is an output platform that is already being widely used by many worldwide names, so you’d expect RoboHelp 9 to fully supports its use.
RoboHelp 8 did support its use but RoboHelp 9 takes it to a new level. For a start the addition of templates and skins allow you to add your own look, feel and corporate branding to the output. Additionally you can now add comments and moderation allowing a degree of interaction previously unavailable. One drawback is that comments are limited to users on the same network. However if used in conjunction with the Adobe RoboHelp Server 9 application, the comments and moderation are stored on the server making them available to anyone with an internet connection.
As I stated in my introduction, one of the major selling points of RoboHelp is its familiarity. Whilst this is still true in version 9, a few minor tweaks have been made that lend a real usefulness to end users:
- Environments: These are called “Workspaces” in RoboHelp 9. This is probably a cross over from other Adobe products (e.g. Captivate) that use workspaces. There generally seems to be a push from Adobe to use standard terminology, a personal crusade for me, so I for one am happy for this minor change to be implemented. Access to one’s workspaces has been moved from the File menu to a dropdown in the top right hand corner of the user interface. Whilst it makes this feature more accessible I can’t help feeling the dropdown looks like a bit of an afterthought.
- Variables / Snippets: The pods for variables and snippets now support searching of content, organising content into categories (complete with the ability to collapse / expand them at will) and sorting of content.
- Save and Generate: Whilst in the properties of a Single Source Layout, it always annoyed me that I couldn’t make a change and generate the output at the same time. If I wanted to change the output path AND save that path for the next time, I had to perform two processes. In RoboHelp 9 you have an option to “Save and Generate” your output which solves this problem.
Is that it?
There are other considerations for buying / upgrading RoboHelp 9.
- Context Sensitive Help: If you use context sensitive (F1) help, an automated mapping tool allows you to map your topics directly to an application dialog.
- Paste Rich HTML: Do you have a need to copy / paste Microsoft Word tables or list) complete with all formatting, hyperlinks and images? If so, this is provided.
- As you would expect, RoboHelp 9 is supported on Windows 7 (both 32 and 64 bit). Microsoft Office versions up to and including 2010 are also supported, although users with a 64 bit Microsoft Office install should check out the tech note at http://kb2.adobe.com/cps/890/cpsid_89068.html.
The Technical Communication Suite
It would be inappropriate to end a review of RoboHelp 9 without mentioning the Adobe Technical Communication Suite. Version 3 of this suite of Adobe applications aimed at technical communicators is a must for power users or anyone serious about providing interaction inside their documentation. Version 3 contains RoboHelp 9 and Acrobat Pro X, as well as FrameMaker 10 and Captivate 5. Many of you will notice that in addition to the new version of RoboHelp you have new versions of FrameMaker and Acrobat. Add in the various other elements of the Creative Suite 5 (e.g. Adobe Bridge) that I blogged about earlier this year, and you have a suite of really useful applications for the price of very little. Even if you just have one of the above applications, the upgrade options make this suite an attractive option.
However the Technical Communication Suite 3 is not merely a collection of technical communication applications in isolation. A great deal of integration between the applications is included. For example how about having FrameMaker users authoring the content, you linking or importing that into a RoboHelp project where you can, create Captivate simulations and generate PDFs. All of this is performed seamlessly without having to launch the other applications.
Finally there is the Adobe RoboHelp Server application. If there is one Adobe product that causes more confusion amongst RoboHelp users, it is RoboHelp Server. One of my most visited blog posts is the one that outlines the differences between the two. In essence RoboHelp Server is a documentation hosting solution that also gathers feedback analytics that helps you improve your content. It is not included with RoboHelp, it requires a separate licence, but is well worth the additional outlay.
RoboHelp Server 9, in addition to RoboHelp 9 and the Technical Communication Suite 3, has undergone a major facelift taking it to a whole new level. I’ve already mentioned support for AIRHelp across networks but that is only the start. Having listened to a lot of existing user feedback, Adobe have implemented much of it making this the feedback analytics tool of choice for technical communicators. More of that is a future article perhaps.
I started by stating that Adobe RoboHelp 9 is being heralded as a major new version. This is certainly true as this article should demonstrate. With this version Adobe appear to have listened to end user criticism and pain points and addressed many of them. OK it is not perfect, tell me an application that is, but it is fair to say that there is enough new and amended functionality in this version to make existing users salivate and potential users to take another look. RoboHelp has received some major improvements in key areas which does more than enough to define it as a “must have” release. In this, RoboHelp’s 20th year, Adobe 4th major version in four years has proved once and for all that the future is bright for Adobe RoboHelp.