Developer

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.

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