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Review: Put an End to Lifeless Help Apps : Page 2

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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Deploying in Flash
While RoboHelp is an efficient tool for Help generation, the exciting part of this release isn't the development environment. Instead, it's RoboHelp's new FlashHelp feature, which lets you create Help systems that take advantage of the interactive, graphical capabilities of Flash. Help systems are not a place to try out bells and whistles, but the belief that graphical front ends detract from content-centric applications is obsolete. Simple graphical effects contribute to usability, and end users have come to expect a high degree of interactivity in their applications.

When your application is completed, you simply go to the File menu and select Generate Primary Layout. This will compile your application and bring up a dialog asking you to select the Flash skin you want to use. The result will launch in your browser for testing. The first time I ran this process it triggered a security warning by my anti-virus system, but allowing the script resolved the problem.

Figure 3: The Finished Product. A Help page running inside one of the premade Flash skins available in RoboHelp.

There are distinct advantages to using the Flash Player as your client. Chief among these is a consistent behavior across all platforms. The Flash Player is efficient and presents no security complications. And you won't have to worry about installation issues, as Flash Player is ubiquitous, currently installed on 98 percent of all desktops.



Finally, you'll be able to add multimedia to your Help system. Help is a natural fit for the use of audio and video. Even the best-written text instructions can fail where a visual cue will succeed. RoboHelp users do not have to know Flash or even have the development environment installed to create Help systems that run in the Flash Player. RoboHelp merely exports the finished product into a pre-made Flash template (see Figure 3).

If you have the Flash IDE, you can create skins that work seamlessly with your Help system using the included RoboHelp SDK. Which is good because for now, if you want to use the FlashHelp features of RoboHelp, you should plan on making your own skins. The product ships with 14 precreated skins in the included skin library and an additional five are available via download from the eHelp community Web site, where RoboHelp users can exchange skins. The company appears to be making efforts to get more shared skins in circulation, sponsoring a modest contest for contributors. But be aware: eHelp's efforts to create a robust skin-sharing network haven't yet borne fruit (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Skinny Skin-Skins. It's slim pickings on the skin-sharing community page.

.NET Support
For those who develop in Visual Studio.NET, eHelp makes a version of RoboHelp to support .NET. RoboHelp Office Pro for .NET lets you create an integrated Help system using Windows Forms, Web Forms, or .NET Web services.

RoboHelp would benefit from integration with a screen capture tool and perhaps an image editor. This would have saved me quite a bit of time in creating my test app. (eHelp does in fact make a separate screen capture product so this doesn't seem too far-fetched.) That functionality, plus an expanded graphics library, and LOT more premade Flash skins to choose from would put a little more sparkle on the star.

If anything is going to get you excited about writing Help docs again, RoboHelp X4 is probably it. An attractive, interactive Help experience will get the notice of your end users.

Pricing starts at $999 for the standard edition of RoboHelp Office X4 with no support. Go to the RoboHelp Web site for a full price sheet.



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