Review of three European Help Tools
By Matthew Ellison, Matthew Ellison Consulting
This article features short reviews of three European help tools. Although none of the tools is particularly well known within the global user assistance community, each has some interesting and unique features. Each of the tools is designed to address a different set of requirements, and this article is not intended to provide a feature-by-feature comparison of the products.
The products are as follows:
Fast-Help International is a help authoring tool that is based on its own proprietary database and integrated editor. Its user interface, although fairly extensive and complex, is well organized and clearly presented. As a result, I have found it to be an extremely easy product to learn.
Figure 1: Fast-Help International user interface
Fast-Help International's single-sourcing credentials are quite impressive. The product is able to compile to a variety of output formats including HTML Help (.chm), RTF document, PDF, and Pocket PC, and there is a rich set of options for customizing each of these outputs. Figure 2 shows the options that are available for configuring the documentation outputs, including the ability to add custom headers and footers. Fast-Help International also provides effective support for conditions at the page and character level.
Figure 2: Documentation Options dialog
It is Fast-Help International's support for multiple languages and translation, however, that is its key strength. In addition to providing full Unicode support , it provides a set of tools for translating and managing all the different language versions of a help system within its own interface. It displays the original text in the base language (for example English) alongside the translated version (see figure 3). Furthermore, it only allows translatable text to be changed, and protects elements such as hyperlinks from being accidentally deleted or corrupted.
Figure 3: Translation side-by-side with original version
After translating from a base language into a target language (e.g. from English into French), any subsequent changes to the base language version can be easily isolated for translation into the target language. This reduces translation costs by ensuring that only new or changed content is translated.
Fast-Help International also provides the option of exporting all the base language text for translation by an external translator using a freely downloadable tool called the Translation Assistant. This tool presents exactly the same side-by-side interface for translating as Fast-Help International itself. After translation, the text can then be exported from the Translation Assistant and imported back into Fast-Help International to create a new version of the translation into the target language.
Other interesting features of this product include:
My main concern with this tool is its approach to text formatting. Fast-Help International's integrated editor provides most of the usual character and paragraph formatting options, but has a rather unconventional way of saving combinations of formatting options as named styles. Its Style Gallery includes two distinct sets of styles:
Thus, if you want to fully define the formatting for an element such as a warning, you have to create two styles, one containing its character formatting and the other containing its paragraph formatting. When you subsequently format an element as a warning, you will need to apply both of these styles.
Strangely, the formatting properties of a style are stored within the topic itself. This means that if you change the properties of a style within one topic, Fast-Help has to open every other topic and make the corresponding change if you wish your formatting to remain consistent across all topics (it calls this "cascading the style changes"). Because this may take some time for large projects, Fast-Help gives you the option of cascading the style changes or not (see figure 4).
Figure 4: Cascade Style Changes dialog
Finally, the user assistance and support for Fast-Help-International is comprehensive and of a generally high quality. The Help system is well written, easy to navigate, and contains innovative and useful features including a One Minute Challenge (proving that it is possible to create a Help system from scratch in little more than 60 seconds) and a number of video tutorials (see Translating a Simple Project for an example).
For more information about Fast-Help International, see the Fast-Help website.
Chm2web Pro is not an authoring tool, but a utility that converts compiled HTML Help (.chm) files to a "bi-frame" website with tables of contents, index, and search in the left-hand frame. It comes with a set of customizable templates that enable you to configure the content and appearance of the pages by adding headers and footers, and applying new CSS rules.
Why would you require such a tool, when many help authoring tools (such as the two other products reviewed in this article) enable you to generate both HTML Help and web pages from the same source? Well, I can think of three possible reasons:
chm2web Pro has a simple tabbed interface (see figure 5) that enables you to select various options and settings for the conversion. You can easily apply a theme to the generated website by selecting one of the supplied templates on the Template tab. If you are willing to immerse yourself in some fairly straightforward code, you can even configure these templates to your own requirements, or create your own new templates.
Figure 5: Tabbed interface of chm2web Pro
To test out chm2web Pro, I decided to use it to convert the help for Windows Media Player 9 (wmplayer.chm). The original Help file looks like this:
Figure 6: Original Windows Media Player .chm file
For my first conversion I used the Default Blue template and chose the option to leave the formatting of the text within the pages unchanged. It was extremely quick and easy to set up the project, and after clicking the Build button the following website was generated in less than 20 seconds:
Figure 7: Windows Media Player website using Default Blue template
chm2web Pro's Pre-processing tab enables you to make some simple changes to each of the pages in the website. As well as being able to add a header or footer, you can also delete data from each page using "Regular Expression" pattern matching. For example, figure 8 shows the result I obtained by removing the first table (which contains the Windows Media Player logo) from every page. I also added a header of "Sample for WritersUA review", changed the look and feel by applying the Modern Green template, and applied custom CSS styles to change the formatting of the topic text.
Figure 8: Windows Media Player website using Modern Green template
One other thing worth mentioning is that the search facility within the websites generated by chm2web Pro supports partial matching. For example, if a user types "win" into the Search box, the search will find any words (such as "window" or "winning") that begin with these three letters.
For more information about chm2webPro, see the chm2web website.
E.S.T. Help Author Pro is a help authoring tool that generates a wide range of output formats including HTML Help (.chm), Rich Text Format manual, and browser-based Help. Its interface (see figure 9) looks professional and incorporates some contemporary designs and controls such as accordion tabs within the left-hand pane, and a Task Pane on the right-hand side.
Figure 9: E.S.T. Help Author Pro interface
However, there are a few usability issues in parts of the product, and the Help system is not as clear and well organized as I would have liked. For example, I had some problems understanding how to implement Embedded Topics (a very interesting feature similar in principle to the Snippets feature found in Adobe RoboHelp and MadCap Flare).
For me, the other most interesting and innovative features of the product are:
Text formatting is a disappointment since there is no support at all for styles.
A simple screen capture tool is bundled with E.S.T. Help Author Pro, and the overall package might represent an attractive option to help authors who are on a tight budget since a single-user license currently costs only 99 Euro.
For more information about E.S.T. Help Author Pro, see the E.S.T. Help Author Pro website.
Matthew Ellison is an independent user assistance consultant and trainer with more than 20 years of experience in the software industry. Based in the UK, he organizes the annual UA Conference - Europe.