Software Development

Product Spotlight: Help & Manual documentation tool

Derek Schauland checks out Help & Manual, a documentation creation tool, in this Product Spotlight. If you need help organizing your own help documents, this might be the tool for you.

Derek Schauland checks out Help & Manual, a documentation creation tool, in this Product Spotlight.

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Being the help desk, the documentation writer, and the network administrator rolled into one for a medium-sized company is quite the task some days. Creating documentation is a must when working with more than just a handful of users, but getting the documents into a bundled format that works virtually anywhere is a challenge.

I tried Word documents and PDFs for a while, but they were too numerous to track and it became confusing to know which versions were still floating around when they needed to be updated. Then, I found a tool called Help & Manual in hopes of clearing up some of the documentation mess. Here is what I learned from using it.

Specifications

Supported operating systems:
  • Windows 7
  • Windows Vista
  • Windows XP
  • Windows 2000
Hardware requirements:
  • 1024 MB of RAM
  • 100 MB disk space
  • a screen resolution of 1024x768 or higher

Who's it for?

This product is for anyone who needs some help organizing and updating their documentation, especially if you're a one-person IT shop.

What problem does it solve?

The idea of Help & Manual is that it allows you to create the documents one time and push them out to many formats, including Windows Help files, Compiled Help, HTML, PDF, text, among others.

For example, suppose I'm creating documentation for a process in an application. The application likely has a help document already, but often the entire thing is really unpleasant to work with. Using Help & Manual, I can import existing help files (or other documents) and include them in my new project. This way, the section(s) of application help I need can be layered in with the help I am creating.

Standout features

  • The Help & Manual interface uses the ribbon concept from Microsoft Office (Figure A) and creates a book-like project where documentation can be split up into sections as needed.
  • The application uses the idea of topics, creating a table of contents in the navigation pane on the left of the main editor.
  • Other content, such as video, can be included in these projects as well. This allows the creator to embed the video for a broadcast presentation right into the help documentation for future use.

Figure A

Click to enlarge.

Starting out in Help & Manual
Note: You may need to download the correct compiler for help files after loading Help & Manual. When you click the publish option on the project tab and select a type that requires a compiler or other engine that you need, you'll have to locate it on your system or download it. The Help & Manual Web site contains the files needed for use with the program (Figure B).

Figure B

Click to enlarge.

Ensuring the correct compilers are included on your PC
  • Working in Help & Manual is much like any word processor, however, there are other built-in tools, like image capture, that bring a bit more to the table. When creating a document, Help & Manual allows you to clip screenshots of other programs right from its ribbon using Screen Capture (Figure C). Because images in a help document are often worth more than a thousand words, this can be a lifesaver.
  • The documents created in Help & Manual are created purely in XML to allow more outputs to be used when publishing projects.

Figure C

Using Screen capture in Help & Manual

What's wrong?

Price: Well, it's not free. There is a free 15-day trial of the application. Following that, the application can get quite pricey, but it may be worth the investment depending on the amount of documentation you or your organization creates.

For a professional license, the cost is $499 and standard edition licensing starts at $349.

Competitive products

  • Adobe Systems Robohelp
  • Softarex's ActoStudio
  • Madcap Software's Flare

Bottom line for business

Overall, the availability of options to use as output for Help & Manual won me over. Being able to compile a bunch of information, in many formats, into a help-like document is key. Also, compiled help is very small and fits nicely on a USB flash drive.

The topic-centered approach of Help & Manual makes the compilation of documentation much easier, and the output options allow for easy distribution in multiple formats, making the tool infinitely useful in creating documentation for a diverse group of users.

Help & Manual is a very good tool that deserves a look if you're searching for documentation help in your organization.

About

Derek Schauland has been tinkering with Windows systems since 1997. He has supported Windows NT 4, worked phone support for an ISP, and is currently the IT Manager for a manufacturing company in Wisconsin.

4 comments
JAKEONE
JAKEONE

Certainly an excellent tool. wish it was free.

Peter Sanders
Peter Sanders

Hi I am not associated with H&M, I am a VERY satisfied user :) I have used H&M for a long time now and have twice presented it to our local software developers group. Your review really only just scratches the surface of this amazing help creation tool. "...the application can get quite pricey..." Have you seen the price of Flare (plus ancillaries) lately? and what about RoboHelp at nearly twice the price of H&M! I have used RoboHelp in it's earlier life, before it died and has now been resurrected by Adobe. RoboHelp and others are all good help creation tools, but I believe that H&M is an exceptional help creation tool and excellent value for money. H&M was one of the first (if not the first) to have a BUILT IN editing tool. Earlier help creation tools would rely heavily on MS word for the editing options (e.g. RoboHelp) and work with word to manipulate the text into a help manual. With MS Word being a memory hog this would result in frequent "crashes". H&M long ago removed this problem by providing a fast and clean, easy to use built in editor. I tried Flare during its development and found it, for my needs at least, overly complicated. I don't doubt Flare's usefulness for those businesses that use it, however for most companies large or small; and especially those individual (or small groups of) software developers H&M would easily fit the bill for their documentation needs. One (I think) very important feature that H&M has (as do some others) is build types. There are several built in and you can create your own. This means for example you can, from the SAME source have managerial staff manuals and worker manuals just by specifying the build type which includes or excludes the appropriate staff text. If you have a need for application help manuals or procedural manuals etc, etc, I recommend you utilise the 15 day trial. Kind regards Peter Sanders

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

Help and Manual has been a great tool for me in creating help and support documentation. Do you create enough documentation or have different distribution needs, which might make Help and Manual a good fit for your toolbox?

Derek Schauland
Derek Schauland

I am aware that my post just scratches the surface of the tool and that was its intent. I feel that to really dig into an application you have to give it a try and kick the tires for yourself. It can get pricey, depending on your environment and what you are aiming to achieve. For single person organizations or companies with no budget for documentation (though who can afford that) this might be high, but it is cheaper than the competition for sure. I had looked at RoboHelp to aide in the creation of documentation in the past, but could not get past the price. Now that I have used Help and Manual I would certainly recommend it in place of other tools.

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