What's New in Adobe RoboHelp 7?
By Rob Houser, User Assistance Group, Inc.
The release of RoboHelp 7 was announced by Adobe in September 2007. It's unusual for Adobe to have two major releases in one year (RoboHelp 6 came out only 9 months earlier). Although they call it two major releases, I'd say it equates to one major release of RoboHelp (with RoboHelp 6 and 7 combined equaling one major release) and an interesting first attempt at a Technical Communication Suite. This article will focus on RoboHelp 7; however, I'll discuss the suite at the end.
Note: If you're looking at RoboHelp for the first time or you're currently using RoboHelp X5 or earlier, you might want to check out the review I wrote for RoboHelp 6 in addition to reading this review.
RoboHelp 7 has several useful new features that help authors needed:
Opening Multiple Topics at One Time
RoboHelp's MDI (Multiple Document Interface) support enables you to open multiple topics at the same time and even copy/paste content between topics. This is great feature for help authors.
You can create a split screen view by right clicking on an open topic and selecting New Vertical Tab Group or New Horizontal Tab Group. With two topics (or any kind of files) opened side-by-side you can copy and paste text using drag-and-drop. Very cool.
Figure 1: RoboHelp 7 allows you to open multiple topics in a tabbed format.
Edited topics that have not been saved are indicated with an asterisk.
Hint: Closing an individual topic is easiest by right-clicking on the tab. The X on the far right of the bar with the tabs closes the active tab even though it's a long way away from the tab.
Not So Good Points
Of course, every good feature has a down side. With the MDI support you have now have to remember to save your topics. There's not a real autosave feature. The option to "save on close" doesn't seem to work when moving between tabs or when opening a new topic as indicated in the help; however, it does save the changes when closing a topic or the entire project.
The color coding of the tabs doesn't have any significance. There are 8 colors that repeat in sequence as you open files. It would have been nice if the colors indicated a file type such as topic, snippet, and project file.
You can't make a topic a floating window that can be dragged to a second monitor.
Snippets greatly improve the ability of RoboHelp to reuse content.
What is a snippet?
A snippet is a reusable block or series of blocks of content. Snippets can consist of text or graphics or both. After creating a snippet, you can reuse it as many times as you want. Editing the snippet updates all of the places where it was used.
You can export your snippets and import them into an entirely different project.
You can create snippets from selected text or an entire topic.
There is a Snippets report under Tools > Reports.
Not So Good Points
The view of the snippets displayed in the Snippet pod tries to show a preview of the snippet, but it shows the entire page so you can't really read the snippet. Also, the preview window takes a huge amount of space. Consequently, you can only display a few snippets in the pod at a time without resizing the pod. In a real project, you could have over a hundred snippets—RoboHelp doesn't give you a good way to locate and view those snippets.
Figure 2: The Snippet Pod shows a preview of each snippet.
Even though you can create a snippet from selected text, you don't have an option to replace the selected text with the newly created snippet. Creating a snippet seems to add an extra paragraph line that you have to delete by editing the snippet after it is created.
I was unable to place a snippet inside a snippet.
There is no external tool to manage and reuse snippets outside the individual project level.
Because there is no option to continue the sequence of a list, you can't create a step from a numbered list as a snippet and insert it into different places in the sequence of steps.
Deleting a snippet is a little strange. You can't select a single snippet already inserted into a topic and convert it to regular text. Instead, you have to right-click on the snippet in the snippet pod, select delete, and then select an action that you want to take on all snippets when they are removed.
Note: You can still cut an individual snippet from a topic.
Support for Other Languages
I think the expanded support for other languages is one of the most significant new features for RoboHelp 7. Many companies supporting Asian (double byte) languages had to freeze on RoboHelp X3. These users can now upgrade and take advantage of the latest features.
Note: According to Adobe's online help, not all of the languages have their own dictionary (which affects spell check and auto correct) and thesaurus.
While having more than one TOC isn't earth-shattering, it can make a difference when single-sourcing from the same content. For instance, you could have a different organization for the TOC of your help system than you could have for your printed document. Or, you might have two versions of the same help system with different TOCs. You can even use the multiple TOCs feature when translating a help system to another language.
You can also generate multiple indexes and glossaries in RoboHelp 7, but I see those as somewhat secondary to the multiple TOCs.
Breadcrumbs appear at the top of your topics to show how the currently displayed topic is organized in the project folder of the RoboHelp project.
Figure 3: Breadcrumbs appear in the generated layout at the top of the topic. They reflect the project folder structure.
Note: If you use the same topic in the TOC twice, the breadcrumbs will be the same for each topic reference because they reflect the folder structure of the project.
Improved HTML Editor
The enhancements to the HTML Editor are an unexpected improvement. The RoboHelp team didn't have to change the HTML Editor, especially since most users rarely if ever use it. However, the changes that they made could encourage users to try working with the code more often when necessary.
You can turn on line numbers, add your own tag expansions (suggestions), and adjust the colors used in the HTML Editor.
The Intellisense feature provides a list of applicable tags as you start to type a tag, allowing you to press Enter to auto-populate the start and end tag.
Figure 4: Intellisense is one of the HTML Editor enhancements that helps you to use the correct syntax for a tag.
Not So Good Points
The content in RoboHelp is still in HTML. This isn't a problem with creating a help system today, but it may present a problem for moving to XML in the future. Because RoboHelp does not support XML, customers interested in interchangeable XML schema and a more structured authoring approach such as DITA will have to look elsewhere for a solution. Most RoboHelp users don't seem to care about XML yet.
Vista/Office 2007 Support
RoboHelp 7 officially supports the Vista operating system and Word 2007.
I have to classify some features as nice but not essential. This is my list of those smaller or more questionable features.
Personalized and Customizable User Interface
Making a drastic change to the user interface of a legacy product is always risky and difficult. RoboHelp 7 rearranges the main user interface (UI) that has been in RoboHelp for over 10 years.
The UI is now split into smaller pods that you can move around into different layouts. You can save the different layouts (called environments) and then load an environment when you need a different organization for the UI. With a high screen resolution, you can fit a lot of information onto one screen, including a view of two topics open at the same time.
Figure 5a: One example of a customized environment for viewing two topics at once. Environments can be saved and used again.
Figure 5b: Another example of a customized environment for indexing topics.
Not So Good Points
One of RoboHelp's main strengths against new tools like Flare was its familiarity for existing users and ease-of-learning for new users. Adobe is taking a small chance with RoboHelp 7 by changing the main part of the tool that has been so successful. The overall layout and some of the familiar icons are different. On the other hand, the new look-and-feel doesn't take that long to get used to.
I'm not convinced that the division of the Project tab into three tabs (Project Manager, Project Settings, and Snippets) makes total sense. I would have split them by topics & images, snippets & variables, and project settings, but that's the only area that I find questionable.
Figure 6a: The Project Manager pod contains the topics, images, tocs, indexes, and glossaries.
Figure 6b: The Project Set-up pod contains Windows, Templates, Skins, and Context-Sensitive Help links.
Some users will probably hate the menus that are initially collapsed except for recently used menu items. This is an approach used in Microsoft applications that tries to predict what you will want to see in the menu. The unpredictability that this feature creates is often confusing for new users, although you can hover over the menu and the entire menu will appear.
Tip: You can turn off this feature by right clicking on the menu and going to the Options tab.
Enhanced FrameMaker Support
RoboHelp 7 includes some additional items in a FrameMaker document that can now be imported into RoboHelp, but there aren't as many of these as I would have expected.
You can import conditional build tags and user-defined variables from FrameMaker. The import process also added support for context-sensitive help markers.
Not So Good Points
The import is only one way—from FrameMaker to RoboHelp. However, many RoboHelp features are not supported in FrameMaker documents, so single-sourcing from FrameMaker to RoboHelp would seriously restrict the quality of your help system.
Another big issue: there is no capability for generating the printed documentation from RoboHelp in FrameMaker. This means the main form of printed documentation supported by RoboHelp is still Microsoft Word, which has numerous layout and formatting issues that have not been addressed for over seven years.
Highlight Search Keywords in WebHelp and FlashHelp
The highlight search keywords feature is one of those small things that seems like it should have been in the product all along, so it's nice to have but not overly impressive.
Improvements to Existing Features
I'm always leery of products that claim improvements to recently introduced features as new features, although I'm glad that Adobe did circle back to make improvements. RoboHelp 7 made several improvements to existing functionality: Captivate integration, screen captures, user-defined variables, command-line compilation and PDF generation.
There's not a lot to dislike about RoboHelp 7. Here are a few issues.
There are some small changes to how styles are treated. They're separated by Character, Other, and Paragraph. This division is a little confusing because Other includes H1, H2, etc. and P while Paragraph includes Heading 1, Heading 2, etc. and Normal. The treatment of Other in styles doesn't seem to be addressed in the online help. Which brings me to
A Shocking Trend
I hate to make this observation, but RoboHelp's online help seems to be getting worse. I'm not talking about RoboHelp's ability to output a professional and standard looking help viewer. I'm talking about the help content that is supposed to help you learn and use RoboHelp. The examples may not seem dramatic, but taken as a whole I'm afraid that new users may not be able to learn RoboHelp simply by using the online help. They certainly aren't seeing best practices and full RoboHelp capabilities being demonstrated.
Example #1: Index Terms
Using the What's New topic that highlights new features in RoboHelp, I performed a quick 10-minute test on the index and noticed that the following keywords are not there:
I'm not saying that indexing is easy, but if you're going to include one you need to update it with each release.
Example #2: Topic Content and Navigation
Many of the new help topics are sparse.
For example, the home page has no body text at all and only three links. When you open a context-sensitive help topic, you can't get the TOC or Index. If your topic has breadcrumbs, you can go back to the Home page, but you just get the home page with three links: Introduction, What's New, and Adobe Help. This means that if you click F1 and view a context-sensitive help topic and then want to perform another search you have to go back to the Help menu. You might think you could at least search from the What's New topic, but the topic doesn't have any links in it.
Figure 7: RoboHelp’s home page is underdeveloped.
Example #3: Poor Linking and Organization
Go to the Snippet tab and press F1. The help describes the Snippet pod. However, it doesn't define a snippet, give you guidelines about creating snippets, or link to any other topics about snippets. The topic provides only six sentences in a topic that could easily be the first topic a user accesses about snippets.
Now open the main help system using Contents and Index. Look in the Contents for snippets. I looked for 10 minutes and finally had to view the source of the TOC and perform a search to discover that snippets were discussed under Editing and Formatting > HTML Snippets. The TOC assumes a certain amount of knowledge about the product to be able to navigate its many options.
There is some basic content about snippets in the help system, but it's hard to find because the cross-linking is so minimal.
Small stuff (formatting errors and tiny text)
Many of the new topics have inconsistent formatting in them. Most of these issues deal with sloppy alignment such as bullets and feedback statements that appear to the left of the parent numbered list item. It's a subtle error, but one that shouldn't exist in the leading help authoring tool.
Figure 8: Many of the new RoboHelp topics do not tightly control formatting, especially in lists.
I guess I'm finally getting older, but it struck me as odd that RoboHelp's body text is all hard-coded to use an absolute font size of 8 points. It's very difficult to read and doesn't follow W3C recommendations for accessible content.
In RoboHelp's online help, the left navigation area doesn't appear to have been created with RoboHelp. It's a custom control. The Search doesn't search the help—it searches the Adobe LiveDocs web site, which as far as I can tell doesn't include any topics about RoboHelp7 at all. I searched for the missing index terms and then tried words like "help" and "topic" and "project" all with no search results.
The Browse drop-down at the top allows you to select other Adobe products, not sequences of topics in RoboHelp's online help.
Adobe has taken two well-known terms from help and changed what they do without actually improving the user experience for getting help about RoboHelp. They didn't even use RoboHelp's left navigation control. Does that mean RoboHelp's left navigation isn't recommended for use by RoboHelp users? I'm not sure what it means, but it seems like a strange enhancement to RoboHelp's online help.
Is it fair to critique the online help?
You might ask: Is it fair to critique RoboHelp's online help? I mean, who uses online help anyway? Oh, wait. This is a help authoring tool. We all hope that our users use our help. Shouldn't RoboHelp set a very high standard for help development? And shouldn't it demonstrate the best practices that are well-established in the help industry that it has dominated for so long? Yes, of course it should.
I can't offer a full list of bugs in RoboHelp 7 because I didn't do that kind of testing, but here are some things that I discovered while reviewing the product.
Adobe maintains a list of known and fixed bugs in their knowledge base (http://kb.adobe.com/selfservice/viewContent.do?externalId=kb402741).
RoboHelp 7 definitely adds some useful features. Unfortunately, many of those features have been on the request list for several years. I'm still waiting to see RoboHelp lead the way in help authoring, especially now that Microsoft seems to be backing away from their traditional role as the leader in help authoring technology. So what should we expect from RoboHelp?
Increasing RoboHelp and FrameMaker Integration
While Adobe took a small step towards product integration with RoboHelp 7, they still have a long way to go to achieve true integration. We need more than products that launch other family products easily. We need more than products that can do one-way import of content.
We need to be able to learn one product and easily be able to use the other because they share a standard user interface and common functionality. We need related products like Framemaker and RoboHelp to seamlessly integrate with each other so we can efficiently create, manage, and deliver content in one place without a tool bias towards a particular media.
Providing More Guidance for New Help Authors
The RoboHelp user base is increasing by adding users who are not traditional help authors or technical communicators. RoboHelp needs to provide more guidance for these transitional users. These users need more templates and stylesheets (for example, a Vista look-and-feel with a stylesheet that includes nested lists and a style guide explaining how to use the stylesheet); they need to know more about the process and best practices; and they need to see a world-class help system in RoboHelp's online help. Beginning RoboHelp users shouldn't have to go through a lengthy setup process to get started generating and distributing content. The setup enhancements should come after they've mastered the basics and are ready to improve their existing help system.
Improving Topic Editing
RoboHelp could use some improvements in the way topics are edited. Help authors need to be able to continue the sequence of a numbered list without hard-coding the next step. It should be easy to generate interrupted lists with notes and feedback statements. It should be easy to repeat the last formatting task with a command like CTRL-Y. It should be easier to format and standardize tables.
Improving Microsoft Word Print Support
All RoboHelp users are not going to want to dive into the complexity of FrameMaker and Adobe shouldn't try to force them to do this. Adobe needs to address the long list of shortcomings with RoboHelp's Word-based printed documentation output such as numbered lists, odd/even page footers, chapter/section breaks, and cross references.
Supporting Web-based Collaborative Authoring
RoboHelp needs a way for non-help authors to generate and edit RoboHelp content without installing RoboHelp locally. So much content today gets created and edited by a lot more people than the help author(s). Adobe needs to find a way to enable this kind of distributed web-based content development.
Helping Users Manage Content Across Projects
RoboHelp still doesn't make it easy to standardize certain project settings and share common content across multiple projects. Importing and exporting isn't enough—there needs to be a high-level content manager. The old single project model doesn't reflect the reality of many organizations that produce multiple help systems and printed documents and share content (text and graphics) and style sheets. RoboHelp needs a way to specify a server that stores this shared content outside of an individual project. Snippets are a great new feature, but how are we going to organize them, find them, and reuse them, especially across projects?
Supporting Embedded User Assistance
So much of the coolest user assistance is appearing directly in the user interface, but RoboHelp doesn't allow help authors to reuse RoboHelp content in the user interface. I wonder if Adobe could work with Microsoft and other coding tool vendors to create a way to manage on-screen user assistance through RoboHelp rather than embedding it in the code and requiring developer intervention to make simple textual changes. At the very least, Adobe could provide more support for creating embedded user assistance windows in applications.
Building Communities and Gathering Feedback
I'd really like to see Adobe lead the way into Web 2.0 technologies. The lag in RoboHelp's support for gathering user feedback and allowing users to talk to each other to create their own content is already causing people to look to other vendors for help. There's still a lot to do with the RoboEngine.
Adobe is continuing to pursue the technical communication market with its new suite of tools, which includes RoboHelp 7. The rest of the suite includes FrameMaker 8, Captivate 3, and Acrobat 3D 8. It's beyond the scope of this one article to review all of those products. However, if you already work with FrameMaker, Captivate, and RoboHelp this could be a big step forward for the suite. The integration of these products is still just in its infancy; however, they can do some cool things.
RoboHelp and FrameMaker are still two separate tools with different features and user interfaces. While the import of content is improving from FrameMaker to RoboHelp, the content is still pushed from FrameMaker to RoboHelp rather than allowing for shared content that is managed at a higher project level or two-way product integration (pushing content from RobHelp to FrameMaker). Tighter integration in the future—especially the potential for content sharing—is probably the single greatest potential that Adobe RoboHelp has in the marketplace right now.
Do you need to rush out and buy the suite? Take a look at it, especially if you already use FrameMaker and RoboHelp or if you have a need to embed 3D graphics or Flash movies into your FrameMaker or Acrobat files. Authors producing hardware manuals should pay special attention to the technical communication suite. The pricing for the suite seems very aggressive and indicates a good discount, especially if you use 2 or more of the tools in the suite. If you're just providing help with no printed documentation or online demonstrations, you don't really need the suite.
There are certainly more help authoring tools available besides Adobe RoboHelp and Madcap Flare; however, RoboHelp and Flare seem to have a special rivalry going on, especially since the Flare team is made up of former RoboHelp gurus. It's likely that many of you will evaluate at least these two tools when choosing a help authoring tool.
Is there a difference? Yes, but the differences seem to be fewer now than a year ago.
While it isn't my intention to directly compare RoboHelp and Flare in great detail, it's worth mentioning for perspective that Madcap Flare had almost all of the features in RoboHelp 7 in Flare 2.0 as far back as October 2006. I mention this because, if there is a race between RoboHelp and Flare, RoboHelp started some 12 years before Flare, but Flare seems to currently be in the lead by about 9 months.
Some of the advantages of Flare are: Topics are based on XML rather than HTML; Feedback Server allows users to append comments to help topics and rate topics; the search engine is more powerful and flexible; speakers of Japanese, French, and German can use a localized version of Flare; Flare is developed by a team that is experienced with help authoring, and—perhaps the most confusing distinction—Flare seems to support FrameMaker more thoroughly both for importing and exporting content than does RoboHelp.
RoboHelp has been the major player in the help authoring world for a long time, so it owns the largest share of the existing market. RoboHelp has rested on its laurels and stumbled under Macromedia's mishandling of the tool, but Adobe is working hard to take RoboHelp into the future. Adobe has a lot of capital for both marketing and development. They have off-shored most of the RoboHelp development to India to a team highly skilled developing tools such as Acrobat and FrameMaker but they are relatively new to the help authoring world. Adobe's move with the Technical Communication Suite hints at the great potential of integrating some very well-established and related tools.
So which tool is best? That depends on what you need the tool to do and perhaps which size hero you like to champion.
RoboHelp 7 is a big release for Adobe. It adds enough features to RoboHelp 6 to create a major leap forward for RoboHelp in 2007. It shows that the new RoboHelp team is able to enhance the product in a customer-driven way. And it shows that Adobe is really taking RoboHelp much more seriously than Macromedia ever did. There's always room for improvement and future development, but this is a solid release for RoboHelp.
Rob Houser is a principal consultant for User Assistance Group, Inc. (www.userassistance.com), which specializes in the design and development of user assistance. Rob has created numerous online help systems, including embedded help, as well as classroom and web-based training. His research focuses on the relationship between documentation and training, especially in the analysis and design of online media. Rob is a Certified Instructor for Adobe RoboHelp, Adobe Captivate, and Madcap Flare. He is also a Certified Performance Technologist through ISPI and an Associate Fellow of STC.