CXO

RoboHelp Office X3 is worth a look

A Builder.com member offers this review of the latest version of the popular RoboHelp package for authoring help documentation.


The economics of online vs. print documentation make online help and Web-based documentation economical methods of producing and distributing technical documentation. The task has become even more nimble with the release of the latest upgrade for RoboHelp Office help-authoring suite, which has become an industry standard for help-authoring.

eHelp's release of RoboHelp X3 easily handles multiple mediums including Web-based help, Microsoft standard HTML Help, JavaHelp, and help for client-server applications.

RoboHelp X3 also offers powerful options for converting your existing print documentation, authored in Microsoft Word, to Web and online help-compatible formats.

RoboHelp Starter
The RoboHelp Starter feature is designed as a starting block for online help projects, but it needs to focus on the help options available in the standard RoboHelp Office X3 configuration. Be aware that you will be offered the option for WebHelp Enterprise (a different version of its software) in a thinly disguised marketing move. If you choose WebHelp Enterprise for a new project, you will be prompted to purchase the WebHelp Enterprise product. This information should have been handled via their sales channel or in documentation rather than inside a working application. This marketing ploy obfuscates an otherwise well-executed starting point for help authors seeking the best online help option for a particular product.

That said, RoboHelp Starter does take users through the selection of the appropriate help delivery formats (See Figure A).

Figure A
RoboHelp Starter shows the various help delivery options available with RoboHelp Office X3 (with the exclusion of WebHelp Enterprise).


Help options in RoboHelp Office X3
The available online help options are designed to meet the needs of Web-based, cross-platform, Microsoft, and Oracle applications. A WinHelp output option is also available if you are still supporting client-server applications.

Following is a look at each of the options:
  • WebHelp: The WebHelp option enables you to develop browser-based help compatible with major Web browsers. Developing technical content in WebHelp enables you to build platform-independent help systems, Section 508-compliant help, and intranet content. Section 508 compatibility is included with all the help output options, but I was especially happy to see it as part of WebHelp. This function is going to be a boon for online help authors and developers building Web applications and sites for the U.S. government.
  • HTML Help: The HTML Help option follows the Microsoft HTML Help standard, which is one of the industry-accepted standards for online help.
  • JavaHelp: The JavaHelp option is compatible with the Sun standards for JavaHelp. It is also important to note that, to produce JavaHelp with RoboHelp X3, you must have downloaded and installed the Sun Java 2 SDK and JavaHelp. If you try to develop JavaHelp with RoboHelp X3 with the download, you’ll receive messages telling you to download the needed Java components and information on features that will not be supported if you don't.
  • Oracle Help: Oracle Help is also a Java-based help format requiring the download and installation of the Sun Java 2 SDK and JavaHelp. The inclusion of Oracle-specific help may be hard to justify as an expense unless your shop does extensive Oracle development.
  • WinHelp: If your development team is tasked to develop and maintain non-Web based applications, RoboHelp Office X3 produces WinHelp with formats compatible with projects developed in Visual C++, Access, Borland C++, Borland Pascal, Delphi, Excel, Visual Fox Pro, C++, C, Paradox, PowerBuilder, Turbo Pascal, and Visual Basic. RoboHelp Office X3 can also be the tool for migrating help systems if your plans call for putting such applications on the Web.

Tools
Online help-authoring requires ancillary tools to support help development, and RoboHelp Office X3 includes a number of support tools, such as a limited-feature Software Video Camera, a publishing wizard, and other apps to support graphics and help development.

RoboHelp Office X3 could be improved with the inclusion of a screen capture tool, especially since the upgrade includes a new print documentation output feature. eHelp doesn't need to develop such a tool, but licensing an application like TechSmith’s Snag-It would fit the bill nicely. Licensing TechSmith’s Camtasia would also be a big improvement over the Software Video Camera offered in the product.

However, RoboHelp Office X3 does enable you to integrate other tools into the Tools tab by right-clicking on the Tools tab, selecting New Tool, and specifying the application parameters in the New Tool dialog box.

Print documentation
Sole sourcing technical documentation is a virtual Holy Grail with pundits who claim that technical writers can cover the needs for both online help and print documentation from a single, core set of content files. While the writing structure for online and print formats differs, the print documentation feature of RoboHelp Office X3 may not be able to cover both your print and online documentation requirements.

What the print documentation output feature does offer is a starting block where you can output your online help to a print format in Microsoft Word, thus helping with technical documentation development timelines.

Documentation included with the product
RoboHelp Office X3 includes a limited set of documentation covering installation and getting started topics. However, eHelp does provide follow-up resources via the RoboHelp community, which offers support articles, a user-to-user community support forum, downloads, links to other resources, and a product knowledgebase.

Comprehensive print documentation isn’t included with many software products anymore. While I had hoped that the print documentation for RoboHelp Office X3 would be different, I was happy to see eHelp “eat their own dog food” in embracing Web-based help through helpcommunity.com.

Creating help with RoboHelp Office X3
One of the more appealing elements of RoboHelp Office X3 is its flexibility, enabling help authors to stick with the tools that they know. Help authors can use Word, Dreamweaver, HomeSite, and the GUI editor included in RoboHelp Office X3 to develop the content.

eHelp also does a good job providing users a standard set of steps needed to produce online help. This makes it easier for Help authors who want or need to break away from other online help formats. To create help with RoboHelp:
  1. Go to RoboHelp Starter, then select your desired help output.
  2. Specify the project parameters in the New Project Wizard, including the title of the project, file name, location of the project files, and the title of the first help topic. (See Figure B.)
  3. Create the help system topics and other features, such as indexing, on a project level.

Figure B


Should I stay, or should I go for the upgrade?
eHelp continues as the cutting edge of online help-authoring, with RoboHelp Office X3 offering a Swiss army knife of online help-authoring options. You can also integrate your own tools into the help development process. If your organization is revamping its online help and Web-based documentation strategy, or making more definitive strides in that direction, then RoboHelp Office X3 may be for you.

 

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