[Guest Post] “From One to Many – Single Sourcing With RoboHelp”, by Neil Perlin

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Welcome to the second of three posts covering questions that I often hear about RoboHelp. In this post, I’ll look at single sourcing – does RoboHelp support it and with what features. As with the previous post, this one summarizes a related webinar. You’ll find the recording at “From One to Many: Single Sourcing with RoboHelp 10“.

Basic Definition

01 1-to-manyThe simplest working definition of single sourcing is “creating one source of content from which to extract subsets of content to create different outputs and/or re-use that content in different outputs”.

What are “different outputs”? When RoboHelp appeared in 1991, at time, “different outputs” meant a help system and a print version, usually PDF. That’s still common, but the outputs now include more formats like WebHelp, HTML5 (mobile and desktop), and AIR, different devices like smartphones and tablets, different markets, different user audiences, and more.

What’s “re-use”? It’s a familiar issue. Imagine having to use the same text or image in multiple places. In the past, you’d create the item, insert it, then copy and insert it in the additional locations, only to have to find each insertion when the text changed. This is difficult and inefficient. RoboHelp’s re-use features let you create the item as an object and insert that object wherever you need it. If the text changes, you simply change the object and RoboHelp will propagate the change everywhere.

Single sourcing offers two major benefits:

  • Cost-effective and (fairly) easy support of outputs for multiple audiences, markets, formats, devices, modalities, and any other output segmentation you may need.
  • Flexible, cost-effective, and (fairly) easy support for using and maintaining content in multiple places within your outputs.

Several questions often arise regarding single sourcing:

  • Is single sourcing new? No. It dates to 1991 when RoboHelp and Doc-to-Help first appeared.
  • Does single sourcing require a CMS (content management system)? It may, if your projects are complex or require extensive usage reporting and governance. But the answer is often no. Windows’ folder system may be perfectly adequate and a lot cheaper.
  • Is single sourcing complex?  It depends. Creating one project to be output as WebHelp and PDF is usually simple. On the other hand, projects with thousands of topics that use conditions, variables, snippets, and similar features can be extremely complex.

Note – About ten years ago, single sourcing was redefined in the consulting world to mean “storing all content in one source format and creating outputs in the same format”. Everything else that comprises single sourcing became “multi-channel publishing”. The effect was to artificially create a new market space, but the two terms essentially mean the same thing. I’ll refer to “single sourcing” but be aware of this new term.

Single Sourcing Features in RoboHelp

For details about RoboHelp’s single-sourcing features, see the recording of the webinar click on the following title: “From One to Many: Single Sourcing with RoboHelp 10“.

Here I’ll just sum up the features, starting with the single sourcing-specific ones:

  • Conditionality – This feature lets you categorize content for selective output, such as putting some topics in a US-only category and others in a Canada-only category. Conditionality is at the heart of single sourcing to multiple outputs.
  • Variables, Snippets – These features are “placeholders” that let you insert and manage chunks of content in different places programmatically rather than by copying, pasting, and searching.
  • Resource Manager – This feature lets you share topics and some control files between projects. The Resource Manager, variables, and snippets are at the heart of re-use.
  • Single source layouts – These “filters” control what content is extracted from the project and the creation of the outputs.
  • Screen profiles and layouts – These new (in v. 10) features let you specify various technical and browser standards and screen designs for HTML5 outputs.

Not single sourcing-specific but still crucial to it are two more features:

  • Master Pages – Lets you create topic templates to ensure consistent authoring.
  • CSS – Lets you specify format settings for your content in general and tables in particular.

How Difficult Is Single Sourcing?

Mechanically, it’s surprisingly simple. Features like conditional tags are easy and quick to apply. A CSS can be complex, but you can create a basic one from scratch in a few days. And so on …

But that simplicity can also lead you to start a project without first defining its specifications, sometimes called the “Ready, fire, aim … oops” model. Preventing this takes upfront planning. It doesn’t take much – you can typically define a project’s specifications, architecture, standards, and core control files, which can often be used on later projects as well, in a week or less. The result won’t be perfect, but you will be able to start actual development in days rather than months.


A Few Steps Toward Controlled Single Sourcing

To keep things under control, follow these steps (and some additional ones discussed in the webinar):

  • Set expectations – Make sure everyone has the same definition of single sourcing.
  • Set standards and mainstream them – You need to set development standards to control single sourcing work across your organization. But there’s the extra step of training, publicity, and enforcement needed to get the standards into the corporate culture.
  • Define your output needs into the future – If you set and mainstream development standards, you’ll have a solid base for your single sourcing work. But the further out you can project your output needs – iPhone output in Q4 14, for example – the better you’ll be able to factor those needs into the development standards you define today.
  • Fix bad workflows and development practices – Every company has workflow problems. Single sourcing alone may fix those problems, but the process of moving to single sourcing may also provide the opportunity to review and improve your workflows and practices.
  • Move toward structured content – This is an important point and one that needs careful review because of the differing definitions of “structured” and whether RoboHelp can create it. The last webinar in the series will address this issue.


Is RoboHelp a single sourcing authoring tool? Simply put – yes, and an extremely powerful one for most of today’s TechComm output needs and newly emerging ones.

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Posted on 11-12-2013


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