Product Review: RoboHelp (2015 Release)

A Case for Big, Bigger, and Biggest Changes to Help Authoring

rh-iconRoboHelp, one of the best known and longest-lived single-source authoring tools grew and evolved to meet new technological demands to make creating content easier. Adobe’s latest release of RoboHelp continues down this road with more features and power than ever.

As soon as you start RoboHelp (2015 Release), you can clearly see that this is a major release. Their completely new ribbon-based interface and exciting features such as Dynamic Filtering, new and improved output skins and effortless mobile app creation offer a lot to be excited about.

RoboHelp (2015 Release) New Ribbon-based Interface: A Surprisingly Big Change

Almost all elements have been given a makeover. New, sensible icons replace the rather cryptic ones from previous versions. But the new-ribbon based interface is more than just a cosmetic makeover.

RoboHelp’s new ribbon-based InterfaceA ribbon-based interface is really hard to get right: if an option is placed incorrectly, a product will be very hard to use. But Adobe did an outstanding job. Options are arranged sensibly: every option is on the tab you expect it to be. And, I’m very happy to report that Adobe fixed all the menu inconsistencies of the earlier versions and decreased the number of menu entries for a better overall experience.

Many features like search synonyms, Word conversion settings, or topic version comparison were hidden away in earlier versions. By using a ribbon, RoboHelp’s features become much more discoverable. Even seasoned RoboHelp users will find one or two cool options that they didn’t know existed.

If you are a long time RoboHelp user, the new interface might take some getting used to. I found that it took me a day or two to find all of the options. Happily, Adobe left all the pods intact. (Pods are the panels you use for adding topics, maintaining variables, managing content reviews, etc.) I didn’t have to relearn the interface all at once. I could work with the pods as I was used to and learn the ribbon step by step.

Go Bigger with Dynamic Filtering

Dynamic Filtering is the killer feature of RoboHelp (2015 Release). Dynamic filters allow you to apply filters to your output in real time.

Earlier versions of RoboHelp already included conditional build tags to identify content for specific audiences or scenarios. For example, the software user manuals I write typically target many different audiences such as administrators, clerks and financial officers. All use the same software but have different goals and tasks. A good manual provides each of these audiences with only that help content that they need to meet their goals. With conditional build tags I maintain a single source of content. By tagging content I indicate the audiences whom the content targets. When creating output, I choose to include or exclude content based on the audience I need to serve.

Conditional build tags have one downside: Once you create the output, RoboHelp excludes content and the result is a static output. You can’t dynamically switch to another audience. But with the new dynamic filters you can do just that. In your output you decide, or let your reader decide, which content to view or hide.

Responsive HTML5 Output with Dynamic Filters applied

The sheer number of different combinations of conditional build tags make it practically impossible to cater ever audience imaginable. For example, I work on a project that consists of 25 different modules. Each of these modules may be individually authorised. There is no way I can create a customized help for every combination of authorised modules. There are just too many combinations. With dynamic filters, I can simply tag every module and hide or show this module dynamically. By leveraging the context-sensitive help API, I can let my application determine the user’s authorisation and set the dynamic filters for them.

RoboHelp lets you choose whether to expose these filters to your readers. In my scenario, I hide the filter for the reader and let the application set the filter. But you can also show the filter to the user and have the user decide the content she is interested in.

Dynamic filters use the conditional build tags already available in RoboHelp. If you have any existing projects, you can enable dynamic filters and reuse all your tagged content. It really is a zero effort upgrade. You can even use the Creating a new Named Conditional Expressionnew filters and the traditional content exclusion at the same time. However, dynamic filters require that you output to Responsive HTML5. So if you plan to leverage dynamic filters, you’ll need to plan to use HTML5.

A small but very useful change is that you can now specify names for your conditional build expressions. Applying a sensible name to several conditions works much easier than scrolling a list of all the tags to be excluded:

To make it easier to see how the filters affect the output, you can even create a debug output where RoboHelp shows all filters in the output itself. When you then apply one or more filters it is immediately clear what influence the different options have. If you want to make many different filters available, this feature helps ensure your output works as expected.

An output that shows all Applied Tags for the filtersResponsive Layouts and Improvements to the Editor Offer Bigger Boosts

New Responsive Layouts

RoboHelp (2015 Release) contains two new layouts for Responsive HTML5 output: Azure Blue and Charcoal Grey. These layouts are a big improvement over the RoboHelp 11 layouts when it comes to usability, skin and customization support.

Preview of the Azure Blue layout on different devicesResponsive output is a specialised output that changes the presentation of the output based on the device a reader uses. The image below shows the same page on three different devices, but every device presents the skin differently. The Responsive Layouts (or skins) optimize the available screen space by placing options elsewhere on the screen:

I especially like the mobile and tablet modes of the new Azure Blue layout. The layout looks much more like a mobile site than the layouts from RoboHelp 11. On tablet mode you can now use the TOC whilst seeing the content, which saves a lot of page refreshes and gives the output a snappier feel.


Improved Search Results

Detail of search results in responsive HTML5 outputA subtle change to the new layouts are the improved search results.

Instead of showing the filename of the found topic, the now shows the breadcrumb path of the topic from the TOC.

Another change is that the preview text shown in the search results can now be controlled by the author. In earlier versions, the script would show the first characters of the topic. In practice this meant that every result started with the heading of the topic, duplicating the title. By filling in the topic comment, the search will use the text provided instead.

As an added bonus, both Responsive Layouts have built in support for the Facebook share and Twitter tweet button. This may not be for everyone, and you can toggle these buttons in the screen layout editor.

Responsive Layout Editor Improvements

Having a great layout is not enough in itself. Everything hangs on the ability for authors to customize the layout, and RoboHelp (2015 Release) gives customization a boost.

One of the most requested enhancements for modifying Responsive Layouts in RoboHelp 11 was changing the breakpoints of the layout. A breakpoint is the point where the layout switches between mobile, tablet, or desktop view. By defining a screen width, you control which devices get which view. With the new layouts, you can set these breakpoints in the editor:

Changing the Break Points in the Screen Layout EditorIn fact, Responsive Layouts are now on par with WebHelp, because the new release includes the ability to choose whether to include the Table of Contents, Index, Glossary and Filter in the output. The new responsive layouts and the improvements to the Editor give you the level of control needed to for any size project, and any authoring team, regardless of their skills in CSS and HTML. Given all this, I expect to see a surge in Responsive HTML5 adoption.

There’s an App for That Help

The downside of any hosted content is that you need an internet connection to be able to view it. You can deliver a CHM file to desktop users. For mobile devices you could supply a PDF. But a PDF doesn’t resize to fit the device and lacks the new dynamic filter feature.

Mobile App creation result with a QR code to install the appLuckily, RoboHelp now has built-in support for creating native apps for Android and iOS. Best of all: this feature does not require installing any additional software. Simply create the output as an app, and you can immediately install the app on your phone or tablet.

While you could generate a mobile app with RoboHelp 11, the process required a lot of installation and configuration on the author’s pc, a process that took several days to get right when I worked on RoboHelp 11. And the application wasn’t even good enough to publish in the App store.

The new Mobile App output of RoboHelp fixes that. I just provided my Adobe credentials and a certificate for the app. RoboHelp built the app and allowed me to install it immediately. The whole thing took me only 10 minutes!

RoboHelp uses Adobe Phonegap Build to work its magic. The catch is that Adobe Phonegap Build allows you to have a single ‘private’ app (as created by RoboHelp) for free. If you want to create more than one app with RoboHelp, you will have to buy a subscription to Adobe Phonegap Build. The subscription price is reasonable, but it is something to keep in mind.

One of the difficulties with creating iOS apps has been the need to create the app on a Mac. Not everyone has a Mac and buying a Mac solely for creating an app with RoboHelp is a bit too much. With the Phonegap Build integration, you can create an iOS app without a Mac. That makes justifying the additional cost even easier.

The only thing that confused me at when I started out with apps was the so called “Signing Key.” A Signing Key is a private key that you use to verify that you are the author of the app. You can create an Android app without a Signing Key, but a key is required iOS. For Android apps, you can create a Signing Key manually. You only need to do this once and the process only takes a few minutes. For iOS you have to purchase an Apple developer account for $99 a year.

The Mobile App output really surprised me. I still remember the days I spent with Peter Grainge to get the app generation to work in RoboHelp 11. Creating this output with the new version is a walk in the park! Adobe has outdone itself. While creating apps probably won’t be for everyone, it certainly makes it much easier for those who need it.

Right-to-Left (RTL) Language Support

In recent years, the fact that RoboHelp (and FrameMaker for that matter) only supported left-to-right languages has been a growing issue. Adobe offers a partial solutions in RoboHelp (2015 Release). By setting your project’s language to a right-to-left (RTL) language, your output switches to an RTL optimized skin:

Right-to-left responsive HTML5 output

RoboHelp supports RTL for Responsive HTML5 and WebHelp only. And, while Responsive HTML5 only requires you to set the project’s language, WebHelp requires the use of a specific right-to-left skin. RoboHelp provides several new WebHelp skins, including ones for RTL languages.

Right-to-left WebHelp outpuThe only complaint I have is that the authoring environment is still left-to-right only. While you can add content in right-to-left languages, it really is a bother. The best way to work with RoboHelp is to get a project translated and generate the translated project. If you want to author in right-to-left languages, you best look to the new FrameMaker.

Not as Big But Still Cool

Apart from these large improvements, RoboHelp (2015 Release) also contains smaller improvements:

  • Embedded fonts in ePub: Devices like the iPad have many fonts available, but may not have the font you want to use. If you want to make sure your (custom) font is used to render the text, you have to include that font in your ebook. With RoboHelp you can now include these fonts.Before you start embedding fonts, check your font licensing. Most fonts prohibit embedding and sharing. Given this limitation, embedding fonts is probably of limited use.
  • Find and replace improvements: One of the most sensible redesign decisions went into the Find and Replace pod: The find and replace options are now on separate tabs. This means that I no longer accidentally replace content when I intend to only search.Another addition is that you can now search in all opened topics from the search pod. Very useful in those occasions where you don’t want to do a find and replace in your entire project but still have too many topics to run it topic by topic.
  • Find resource in Project Manager: You can now easily find any resource in the Project Manager. Simply select a resource such as a topic, image or Adobe Captivate demo, press the Find button and the resource is highlighted in the Project Manager. It is a small change but these small features add up to make a product that is easy to use. I was very happy to see this change and it has already become of my favorite features.
  • Remember project state: When you close a project, RoboHelp remembers which topics you had open. When you open the project once again, you can continue right where you left off.
  • Scalable video: If you embed Adobe Captivate output in your RoboHelp projects, you want this content to scale so that the video will fit the device. Captivate 8 can make scalable Flash and HTML5 output. If you embed this output in RoboHelp, the video will correctly scale to the device.Captivate Responsive projects are now also fully supported. The Captivate output scales, and RoboHelp correctly applies all the breakpoints of your Captivate content.
  • Scripting capabilities: Scripting is one of the lesser known features in RoboHelp. With scripting you can automate almost any task in RoboHelp. You can update links in topics, change images, convert text to variables or even change your output.With RoboHelp (2015 release) scripts have access to the currently opened document. Scripts can modify text selection in topics and copy and paste selected content. Many script objects have been expanded with additional options as well. All in all, these enhancements make automation much more powerful.
  • WebHelp skins: Adobe added six new WebHelp skins in RoboHelp (2015 Release). (Each one has a LTR and RTL variant.) The new skins look very modern and thought out. They are sure to breathe a few more years of life into the WebHelp output.

The new Clean Tangerine WebHelp skinI was somewhat surprised that Adobe put effort in such an old output. But since WebHelp is still one of the most used outputs (together with Microsoft HTML Help), it’s great to see Adobe doesn’t forget authors that still have to work with existing formats.

Summary: Big Enhancements and Little Details Add Up to a Worthy Release

RoboHelp (2015) release is a big win for Adobe. The new interface arranges all the options sensibly, so it took me very little time to get accustomed. Working with the ribbon is a delight because I no longer have to remember all the quirky places RoboHelp used to hide its features.

Adobe really spent a lot of effort on the details of the interface: ranging from color schemes to redesigned buttons. And this eye for detail went beyond the interface into all the enhancements and features in the release: the Responsive HTML5 layouts work better and you have all the editor options that you really need. While these changes aren’t revolutionary, they prove that a slight evolution and attention to detail make all the difference in the world.

For me, the killer feature is the Dynamic Filtering. If you have used Content Categories in earlier version of RoboHelp you sure want to try out the filtering to see how it improves your output. The big use cases are obvious: hiding modules, regional specific content, etc. I am very curious to see what other uses I can come up with in the coming months. Since RoboHelp (2015) release offers database-driven output flexibility, I know I will come up with many use cases as soon as I have worked with it for a little longer.

The right-to-left languages support is still lacking since the authoring environment doesn’t support it natively. Most authors I know work in English and have RoboHelp projects translated to languages like Arabic and Hebrew. This workflow is perfectly supported. But it would have been great if RoboHelp could support right-to-left languages for authoring like FrameMaker.

All in all I’m impressed with this release. Dynamic filters alone are more than enough reason to give the new release a spin. Adobe RoboHelp (2015 Release) is much easier to use for seasoned authors, and very easy to learn for authors who have never used RoboHelp before.

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