Review: Put an End to Lifeless Help Apps

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).

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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