Introducing Adobe RoboHelp 9: Can I Get a 'Bam!' With That?
Click a link below to jump to a particular section; click any "
CONTENTS" image following a section heading to jump back here.
I've been using and teaching RoboHelp forever… or at least since the Blue Sky Software days. One of the reasons that I love teaching RoboHelp is the great feedback I routinely receive from my students… specifically about RoboHelp.
At the beginning of class, many of my students admit that they have no idea what RoboHelp is; only that they have been instructed to create a Help System (whatever that is) and that RoboHelp is the "go-to tool." I remember one young fella in particular who said that all he knew about RoboHelp was that "it was a pretty good movie."
As I've taught newbies what a Help System is, and how to use RoboHelp to create a Help System, I've become accustomed to hearing the following from my students at some point during the class after they see one cool RoboHelp feature after another:
"You've got to be kidding me!"
"This program does more, is more powerful and easier to use than I thought!"
"I can't believe how easy that feature is to use."
"I can't wait to get to work and create a Help System using this tool!"
And, my personal favorite: "This changes everything!"
I'm not making up any of the comments above. These are real quotes from real students. These kind of comments have made teaching RoboHelp over the years a joy.
This latest version of RoboHelp, version 9, had me wondering if Adobe would be able to raise the Help Authoring bar more than a single notch or two… or even at all. And I wondered if there were going to be any new features that would bring out the "wow" factor for my students. And that was when I heard the following comments:
"Too cool for school!"
"That'll make things easier!"
"Wow!" "Wow!" "Wow!"
And, my personal favorite: "Bam!"
The statements above are just as real as those I mentioned earlier. The only difference this time is that the statements came from me! I love RoboHelp as much as anybody. But I can't remember the last time a program upgrade put a smile on my face (besides Adobe's upgrade from Adobe Captivate 4 to Captivate 5).
During the pages that follow, I'll share my observations about some of RoboHelp's coolest new features. Hang on, it's going to be a ride!
Upgrading Legacy Projects? No Worries… It's Smooth
A new version of any program can offer the coolest new features under the sun. However, if the new program won't open legacy projects without raising my blood pressure, I've got no use for it. Currently I'm working on a few dozen Help projects that were created in either RoboHelp 7 or RoboHelp 8. I was delighted when RoboHelp 9 opened and automatically updated approximately 12 of my existing projects (varying in size from a few dozen topics to a few hundred). Not one of the legacy projects failed to upgrade to the new RoboHelp 9. Nice!
The RoboHelp 9 Interface… Nothing to Stress About
After starting RoboHelp 9, I was happy to see was that the main user interface has remained relatively intact from RoboHelp 7 and RoboHelp 8.
I'm a creature of habit. When things get moved, hidden or deleted for the sake of change, it tends to stress me out (again, the blood pressure shoots up). With the introduction of RoboHelp 7, users were able to drag pods to specific locations on the screen and then save the UI look and feel by creating an Environment. Once created, the Environment could easily be recalled or a user could load the Default Environment and get back to the default UI. RoboHelp isn't the only Adobe produce to offer an Environment feature. Of course, most of the other Adobe products, such as Captivate, refer to Environments as Workspaces. So it only made sense for Adobe to use the term Workspace in RoboHelp 9. One word of caution however, the Environments feature used to be found in the File menu. These days you'll find Workspaces in a drop-down menu in the upper-right of the RoboHelp window.
Note: I do have one little nit about Workspaces. You'll notice in the image above that the Workspace menu consists of Default, Load and Save menu items. But there is no sign of a Delete command that would allow you to easily delete a saved Workspace. In reality, you delete a Workspace manually by deleting the workspace data file (an RHS file). It seems to me that a Delete Workspace menu item would be an welcome addition to the menu.
The Usual Suspects…
Before I get too deep into some of the cooler features found in RoboHelp 9, let me start by saying that the "usual suspects" that one would expect with any upgrade are present. For instance, RoboHelp 9 will work wonderfully with Windows 7, even the 64-bit variety. And Microsoft Word 2010 is fully supported in RoboHelp 9 (something that I know was a concern for many help authors using RoboHelp 8).
Adobe recently released the Technical Communication Suite 3 (TCS 3). In my opinion, this is the one suite of applications that technical communicators cannot do without. TCS3 includes FrameMaker (version 10), RoboHelp (version 9) and Captivate (version 5). Care to get your socks knocked off? Try the Captivate to FrameMaker to RoboHelp workflow! It's incredible. But that, of course, is an article for another day. For now, let's continue with the RoboHelp 9 tour.
The Review Workflow: Collaboration Comes to RoboHelp
Whenever I open a new version of any program, the first things I do are explore every nook and cranny and look for the new stuff. It didn't take me long to see something new in the RoboHelp 9 menu… there's a Review menu nestled nicely between the Table and Tools menu.
Ever since I discovered the Shared Review feature in Adobe FrameMaker, I've been a fan of the PDF review workflow. In FrameMaker, you can easily create a PDF for Review. Reviewers can use the free Adobe Reader 9 (or newer) to add comments directly to the PDF. Those comments can then be imported back into the FrameMaker source document and accepted or rejected just like you could do using Microsoft Word. Of course, you don't need Word! When I saw the Review menu in RoboHelp 9, I headed for it like a moth to the flame. And I wasn't disappointed.
To begin, you choose Review > Create PDF for Review which opens the Create PDF for Review dialog box. At this point, you can elect to include all of your project's topics, the Snippets and Master Pages. You can also select topics that have been labeled as Complete, In Progress or Ready for Review. In this instance, I wanted to send a single topic (Payroll Policy) out for review just to see how the Review workflow was going to hold up. I elected to save the PDF locally so I could open it on my own hard drive. If you have Acrobat version 9 or newer, you can Send the PDF for Shared Review via Acrobat.com and Enable commenting in Adobe Reader (perfect for those reviewers who do not own Acrobat).
I opened the PDF in Acrobat X and made a few comments. After saving and closing the PDF, I returned to RoboHelp and imported the comments (Review > Import Comments from PDF). An Import Comment Summary dialog box confirmed that both of my PDF comments had been imported into RoboHelp.
Upon opening the topic in RoboHelp, I was delighted to see that the PDF comments had been imported as tracked changes.
All that was left for me to do was right-click the topic and accept the changes. Too cool for school!
Content Categories (a.k.a: Dynamic User-Centric Content)… It's Like Two Layouts in One!
Dynamic User-Centric Content. Wow! That's a mouthful. This certainly does sound like a very complicated new feature. It is new. But in reality, Dynamic User-Centric Content (or Content Categories) is simply Conditional Build Tags taken to the next level.
Not familiar with Conditional Build tags? Here's the quick scenario. You have a Help System that supports a program for two international audiences: US and Canada. Much of the Help System content will be the same for both countries. This content would be known as unconditional content. You wouldn't have to do anything specific with this content except generate the layout.
However, maybe 20% of the content is unique to each country. Simply put, you would create two Conditional Build Tags (one for the US; one for Canada). You would then assign the appropriate Conditional Build Tags to the regional topics, topic content and even images. Next, you would create Build Tag Expressions based on the Conditional Build Tags you assigned.
When the time comes to generate a regional layout, you would choose which Conditional Build Expression(s) to use. In the end, the content specific to the US audience would not appear in the Canadian output, and vice versa.
In summary, by using Conditional Build Tags, you can maintain one huge RoboHelp project but generate an unlimited number of regional layouts, each with unique content. If a topic has been excluded from a layout, it cannot be seen by your users. Additionally, links to missing topic would automatically be removed, along with index keywords and TOC entries. Nice!
Of course, if you had 10 sets of conditions, it also means that you likely need to generate 10 layouts. But what if you wanted to generate a single layout for both of your US and Canadian customers, and then let the customer decide, on-the-fly, which content they wanted to see?
Cue RoboHelp's Dynamic User-Centric Content…
Here's how Content Categories work. If you are going to generate a WebHelp or AIR Help layout, and assuming you have already created the Conditional Build Tags and Build Expressions, you would display the Properties of the layout and select Content Categories.
Next, you'd create as many categories as needed by clicking the New button at the lower left of the dialog box.
After creating the categories, you would fill in the Properties of each category including which TOC, Index and Glossary the user will see as they select the different categories. As I mentioned earlier, you would also select the appropriate Build Tag Expression for each category.
So how does all of this come together for your users of your Help System? When users open your final WebHelp or AIR Help layout, they will now see a drop-down menu in the Navigation Bar (upper left of the Help System window). If they click the drop-down menu, they'll have access to as many categories as you provided. And depending on how many conditional build tags you used, the content that appears for your users may change… and dramatically. Holy Smokes! I could have used this feature years ago!
External Content Search
The two most commonly used features in a Help System are Index and Search. One of the limitations of the Search feature was the inability to hook specific URLs to Search terms. I'm happy to say that the new External Content Search feature puts that issue to rest.
External Content Search can display content from specific URLs based on terms that users are likely to search. For instance, I used Google's advanced Search feature to find all websites with a specific word, phrase and language.
I copied the resulting search URL to the clipboard. On RoboHelp's Project Set-up pod, I double-clicked new External Content Search option to open the External Content Search dialog box.
I clicked the Add button and filled in the resulting dialog box. As you'll see below, most of the fields are self explanatory. In the URL field, I pasted the URL from the clipboard.
The final step in the process was to display the Properties of my layout (I was generating WebHelp) and, from the Search category, select Enable External Content Search.
The generated layout looked like this the image below.
The thing that I really found cool about RoboHelp's External Content Search, especially using a Search engine results URL, like the one I grabbed from Google, is that the results will automatically get updated for my users when Google's algorithms get updated (which is frequently). Personally, I think that'll make things easier for me as a developer and more relevant for my users.
I've written more books than I can count (I actually stopped counting after 200). As 2011 gets going, I'd like to push several of my top-selling titles into the ePub format so they can be viewed on the Kindle, iPhone, iPad and other devices that are equipped with ePub readers. The problem is that companies that specialize in creating ePubs charge a lot of money to convert print books and PDFs into the ePub format.
Coincidentally, I've written almost all of my books in Adobe FrameMaker. I can then easily push the FrameMaker content into Adobe RoboHelp. In fact, if you've got the Technical Communication Suite that I mentioned earlier, the FrameMaker-to-RoboHelp workflow is seamless.
Thanks to RoboHelp's ePub feature, RoboHelp content can be quickly be generated into the ePub format. Of all the RoboHelp features, the ability to generate ePub content is, quite literally, going to change the way we do business where digital publishing is concerned. The savings my company is going to realize by creating ePubs in-house will easily pay for the Technical Communication Suite.
The ePub feature was introduced in RoboHelp 8 as a script you could import into RoboHelp's Script Explorer. After a bit of setup, you'd simply run the ePub script and you'd have an ePub file within minutes. It really was that easy. With RoboHelp 9, the ePub feature has been promoted and no longer feels like an afterthought. All you need to do now is choose File > Generate > ePub Output. You'll fill out a few fields and click the Generate button.
And BAM! The RoboHelp content can be now opened by just about any ePub reader (Adobe Digital Editions is shown below).
Note: I don't want to downplay the RoboHelp to ePub workflow here. There is some setup you'll need to work through prior to generating the ePub file. For instance, you'll need to download an important resource from the Web first. You'll need to create a CSS file to use with the ePub layout that uses some specific formatting. And you'll need to remove or hide any effects that is not going to work with the ePub format (such as DHTML). However, I'm happy to say that the process does work quite well.
There's Something in the Air… Improved Adobe AIR Layouts
Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) lets application developers create rich Internet applications that can not only run outside of a web browser, they will work identically across multiple operating systems. Companies such as eBay, Yahoo, and NASDAQ have tapped into the vast power of AIR to deliver content right to the users' desktop--without the need for Internet Explorer, FireFox, Chrome or any other web browser.
Given the ever-increasing popularity of Adobe AIR, and the fact that Adobe created the AIR technology, it just made sense that this format would be fully supported in RoboHelp. While AIR Help was first available in RoboHelp 8, this newest version of RoboHelp gives the AIR Help a power-boost and a facelift.
For instance, browse the Properties of an Adobe AIR layout and you'll see a Template category. Grouped among the Template options is a Gallery button which will lead you to a Skin Gallery that offers five visually-diverse options.
The Collaboration category provides options allowing the published comments posted to the Help system to be moderated and allows end users to rate the topics. Last, but not least, if you use RoboHelp server, you will be able to store the user comments.
RoboHelp 9 & MS Word Are Now Getting Along Better
I mentioned earlier that RoboHelp 9 fully supports Word 2010. That's wonderful news for many RoboHelp authors considering that much of their content that will be imported into RoboHelp from existing Word documents.
I'm still using Word 2007 with no immediate plans to upgrade to Word 2010. So what would get me excited about RoboHelp 9 is an improved process of creating printed documentation. While the RoboHelp to Word workflow left much to be desired in previous versions of RoboHelp, I'm happy to report that after enabling my macros in Word (something you've always had to do prior to creating printed documentation), the process worked perfectly.
And That's Not All…
There's more in the new RoboHelp 9 of course. You can preview your web output in multiple browsers, including Chrome.
Looking to automate the process of creating Context Sensitive Help? You'll find it in RoboHelp 9. And there's enhanced author-to-author collaboration in the form of a Resources Manager pod that will allow authors to share assets across RoboHelp projects. Cool!
I could go on and on. But if you look way back to the beginning of this missive, you'll see that I really said it all then. What do I think of RoboHelp 9? "Too cool for school!" "Holy Smokes" "That'll make things easier!" and "Wow!" "Wow!" "Wow!"
But when it gets right down to it, one little word really does sum up RoboHelp 9: "Bam!"
Kevin Siegel is the founder and president of IconLogic, Inc. He has written more than 200 books including: Essentials of Adobe Captivate 5, Adobe Captivate 5: Beyond the Essentials, The Essentials of Adobe Captivate 4, Adobe Captivate 4: Beyond the Essentials, Essentials of Adobe Captivate 3, Essentials of Adobe Captivate 2, Essentials of Macromedia Captivate, Essentials of RoboDemo 5, Essentials of RoboDemo 4, Essentials of RoboDemo 3, Essentials of Adobe RoboHelp 8, Essentials of Adobe RoboHelp 7, Essentials of Adobe Dreamweaver CS3, QuarkXPress 8: The Basics, Essentials of Adobe InDesign CS3, Camtasia Studio 7: The Essentials and Camtasia Studio 6: The Essentials.
Kevin spent five years in the U.S. Coast Guard as an award-winning photojournalist and has more than two decades experience as a print publisher, technical writer, instructional designer and eLearning developer. He is a certified technical trainer, has been a classroom instructor for more than 20 years and is a frequent speaker at trade shows and conventions. During the past three years Kevin been a pioneer in the live, online training arena, having led hundreds of classes and trained thousands of students. Kevin holds multiple certifications from companies such as Adobe and the CompTIA. You can reach Kevin at email@example.com.