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Review: Put an End to Lifeless Help Apps

Most Help systems are still in the 90s, with homogeneous, nearly monochromatic user interfaces. RoboHelp X4 can inspire you to renew your Help systems, giving them rich, graphical user interfaces, thanks to integration with the Macromedia Flash Player.




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he Help sections of your applications are probably never going to be particularly sexy—and rightly so—but that doesn't mean that you're stuck forever with a standard, text-heavy, and uninspired user experience. RoboHelp X4 might sound like a robot but it's actually the latest version of Help creation tools from eHelp Corp. The product lets developers generate their Help files into formats playable by the Macromedia Flash Player. The result of this integration is a world of new possibilities for making Help documentation rich and interactive for end users.

The new Flash capability is the highlight of this revision, but even if you never use the Flash features, RoboHelp is a fun and capable system. If you've never looked under the hood of a Help toolkit before, the experience will make you newly appreciative of the organization required to create them.

At the most basic level, developers use the RoboHelp software to create, edit, and index their Help systems. You can get started straight away, after a simple installation. A dialog prompts you to name your Help system and then you begin creating pages. Each page in the Help system is handled as a separate HTML file, however RoboHelp has WYSIWYG capabilities, meaning you can type in natural language, exactly as you would in a word processor. In fact, RoboHelp can import documents from Microsoft Office applications, from Adobe FrameMaker, or plain HTML files.

Figure 1: Adding Keywords. It's a good idea to add critical keywords explicitly, then use the automated keyword generator to supplement your list.

RoboHelp's basic UI is much like any IDE, with a tree view to the left, which lists and organizes all the pages you've created, all the images used, all the hyperlinks referenced, your skins and templates, etc. The right hand side of the screen shows the WYSIWYG content of your current page. Once you've learned RoboHelp's menus and buttons, adding images and links to your pages is easy. The dialog for adding DHTML effects was not very intuitive; I had a hard time understanding what effects were available (they aren't previewable) and how to modify the parameters.

RoboHelp supports Cascading Style Sheets so you can easily set a look and feel for a single project or multiple projects. The CSS handles fonts, sizes, and backgrounds, while skins are used to define the overall GUI of the finished application.

RoboHelp has an image library that you can use to insert arrows and buttons in your pages, but it was disappointingly sparse.

Figure 2: Status Check. The Status tab lets others on your team know the exact tasks and sequence remaining for each page.

As you would expect from a Help creation tool, a large part of what RoboHelp does is assist you in the creation of indexes, tables of contents, keywords, and glossaries. You can easily change the order of pages, link them to one another contextually, and mark terms for inclusion in a glossary. You can tell the system explicitly what keywords to use for each page, or you can let RoboHelp parse your Help text for terms automatically and then edit the list it creates (see Figure 1).

There were some nice surprises, too. The product has built-in support for team development and long-term project planning. For example, you can set the status of each page you create, estimate the number of hours required to finish it, and give it a priority ranking. You can then sort pages by rank to pick off the work in a prearranged order. You can also attach notes about the status of pages and check off tasks still needing attention (see Figure 2).

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