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Reviews

Pod people and RoboHelp

The RoboHelp reviews keep coming, and they’re getting ugly. DMN Communications says in their podcast that the new release of RoboHelp shows “almost contempt” for RoboHelp users (approximately 12:30 into the podcast).

On a more constructive note, the podcasters speculate about the lack of integration of RoboHelp with FrameMaker. They point out that RoboHelp’s competitor, Flare, imports native FrameMaker files, whereas RoboHelp requires use of the intermediate MIF (Maker Interchange Format) files. One of the speakers then muses, “Does Adobe’s agreement with Quadralay [to include WebWorks Publisher Standard Edition in the box with FrameMaker] preclude them from integrating RoboHelp?” (11:40)

I don’t know the answer to this question. Random guesses are so much more fun than the generally mundane truth (whatever that might be).

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Reviews

Notorious

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, or so the saying goes.

But RoboHelp is trying.

MonkeyPi weighs in with his, er, unique style. In a lengthy discussion of a recent Adobe webinar on RoboHelp, he says this:

But the kicker comes when [Adobe product evangelist] Jacquez says, “…the closest [online help tool] to RH is Microsoft’s HTML Help Workshop.” The clear implication is that RoboHelp is teh awesome, and teh other toolz are teh suxors. Why even Micro$oft’s crappy free tool places higher then our pathetic competitors!!

Adobe says that their competitors’ claims were misleading:

Jacquez says, “…competitors telling people that [RH] is dead… one has to wonder what the competition is going to say when their customers begin to return their product because they bought it under the pretense that RH was dead.”

Let’s get something very clear here. After Macromedia bought eHelp, they killed RoboHelp. RoboHelp was dead — Macromedia was interested in RoboDemo (now Captivate) and not in any other component of eHelp’s product line. So, they laid off most of the RoboHelp team.

Enter MadCap. Many of the ex-RoboHelp people thought that there was still a market for a help authoring tool, so they formed the new MadCap Software and built Flare. And much of Flare’s marketing was based on the idea that 1) RoboHelp is not going to have any updates and 2) Flare is the natural successor to RoboHelp.

Fine. But then Adobe bought Macromedia. And Adobe does have a significant presence in the technical writing market, so suddenly the strategy changes. Adobe decides to resurrect RoboHelp.

All of this makes perfect sense. And there’s nothing particularly nefarious about what happened. RoboHelp didn’t make sense in Macromedia’s web-heavy product line-up. RoboHelp can make sense for Adobe, especially if they market RoboHelp, Captivate, Acrobat, and FrameMaker as a core set of technical writing tools, along with Photoshop, Illustrator, DreamWeaver, Flash, Acrobat 3D, and others for more specialized requirements. You can see some of this positioning beginning to happening in the Adobe webinar.

Meanwhile, though, response to RoboHelp 6 has been, at best, mixed. One day after MonkeyPi’s dissection of the webinar, we have 10 Reasons Not to Upgrade to RoboHelp 6 at I’d Rather Be Writing. They include the following (read Tom’s blog for an explanation of each item):

1. Communication from Adobe is bleak.
4. Not compatible with Word 2007.
5. Requires at least 15 macros to clean up [print] output
9. Interface is 1996.
10. Its apparent ease of use is only because you’ve been using it for 10 years.

The writer seems particular offended by Adobe’s lack of response to questions and comments during the webinar and on their new TechComm blog:

[…] Adobe’s RoboHelp blogger either is totally clueless about responding to comments, or he doesn’t understand that a blog is not a PR marketing vehicle. […] Sorry Adobe, but you really get a D when it comes to communication.

This is interesting. Five years ago this would have been a non-issue — obviously Adobe gets to control the content of marketing communications on their web site. No more.

As I use RoboHelp about once every five years, I don’t really have an opinion on the merits of the tool. But I am watching the blog-kerfluffle with some interest, especially as I wonder what reaction to FrameMaker will look like, when they release their next version, probably in mid-2007 (according to public statements from RJ Jacquez).

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Opinion

Authoring styles and art

Norm Walsh tackles topic-oriented authoring and makes a comparison to art.

Imagine that instead of authors, we were painters. In the narrative style, a painter (or perhaps a group of painters) begins at one side of the canvas and paints it from beginning to end (from left-to-right and top-to-bottom). They may not paint it in a strictly linear fashion, but the whole canvas (the narrative whole) is always clearly in view.

Interesting point, and he uses an image of a Vincent Van Gogh painting, chopped into unattractive bits to illustrate what goes wrong in topic-oriented authoring. The flow of the picture is lost.

But what if your content more closely resembles something by Mondrian?

one of Piet Mondrian's cube paintings

Writing useful technical documentation is really, really hard. Using a narrative flow makes it a little easier to ensure that you’ve got the big picture — missing information jumps out at you just as Norm’s chopped-up painting shows.

But topic-based authoring has advantages, too.

Do you need those connections from piece to piece or can individual parts stand on their own?

Are your documents Mondrian or Van Gogh?

I hope for your sake that the product you’re documenting does not resemble Jackson Pollock‘s work.

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Conferences

VC pitch template

This week, I attended the Southeast Venture conference, held at the new Umstead Hotel in Cary, North Carolina. The conference was only about two miles from our office and the opportunity to see this brand-new, five-star aspiring hotel was too good to pass up. (Hard to justify staying there when home is less than 20 minutes away…)

The conference included a series of 10-minute pitches from various companies looking for funding.

After seeing a couple dozen of these sessions, I have put together a helpful template for anyone looking to do a demo pitch.

First, be sure to use the following phrases:

  • “addressable market is over $X billion”
  • “unique value proposition”
  • “sustainable advantage”
  • “barriers to entry”
  • “strong intellectual property assets”

Then, you’ll need two charts. The first one shows revenue and looks like this:
Revenue from 0 today to $50 million at some future date
The second one shows profits and looks like this:
Profits currently zero, drop to negative, then increase to $50 million at some future date
So. Hockey stick and check mark. It’s all very simple.

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News

A business built on accessibility

In this month’s issue of Inc. Magazine (which I read religiously), you’ll find a feature article on Anna Bradley, who runs a business called Criterion 508 Solutions. (Unfortunately, the full article isn’t available online until later this month, but you can see the abstract here.)

My interest in the article is personal — one of the Criterion contractors featured in the article is Brian Walker, who I know from his presentations on accessibility at WritersUA. Congratulations, Brian!

Web site accessibility has been in the news recently because of the Target.com lawsuit. (Target’s web site has major accessibility problems.) Ms. Bradley points out that making web sites accessible is inexpensive — certainly cheaper than litigation and horrid publicity (i.e. “Target doesn’t care about blind people”) — and furthermore, an accessible web site allows an organization to increase the number of customers that use the site. In other words, from a business standpoint, it’s pretty easy to justify spending money to ensure that more people will be able to buy things from you.

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Reviews

An example of good technical writing

Not too long ago, I took a quick look at XMLMind XML Editor (XXE). I downloaded and installed the software, dropped in a couple of existing XML files, and tried to create some new content.

I didn’t like it. Couldn’t get it to do what I wanted.

This week, I ran across Antonio DaSilva’s article about XXE (hi, Tony!). I read the article, then opened up my copy of XXE (still installed). And suddenly, the product worked just fine.

XXE isn’t my favorite XML editor, for the price, it’s a great tool. (The standard edition that I’m using is free.)

There were a couple of bits of information in the article that really helped me. I think the key insight that Tony provided for me was that XXE does not permit your content to be invalid. Thus, if you try to paste an element into an invalid location, the paste action is blocked. I don’t like it, but at least now I understand why the software is behaving the way it does.

Many thanks to Tony for a great article.

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Opinion

If it’s not Scottish, it’s…

[refresh your memory here]

The Aberdeen Group has released a new report, entitled The Next-Generation Product Documentation Report: Getting Past the ‘Throw-It-over-the-Wall’ Approach. (Could that title be any less, um, Scottish?) Access is free until February 23 when you provide your email address.
The Content Wrangler
is not impressed:

The folks at Aberdeen do not truly understand the market, despite many interviews with thought leaders in the documentation arena. […] The survey appeared to be designed to obtain results for each of the sponsors […], instead of questions designed to paint an accurate picture of the documentation industry without regard for the concerns of sponsors.

I lost interest because I think their basic hypothesis is wrong:

Causing a missed product launch because of incomplete product documentation is
the nightmare of every documentation manager.

The vast majority of documentation groups that I’ve worked for/in/with don’t worry about “causing a missed product launch.” If the documentation isn’t ready, the product will still ship. The documentation may be incomplete, inaccurate, unreviewed, or otherwise problematic, but the product will ship.

I know that there are some industries (medical devices come to mind) where documentation is in fact regulated just as the product itself is. But the vast majority of technical writers that I’ve worked with are concerned with triage — how much of the doc can be completed by the (generally ridiculous) deadline?

Am I missing something? Is there a world of documentation managers out there who stress about actual product delays because of documentation?

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Opinion

My First Blog Ethics Challenge

So today, this is all over the various tech comm lists:

If you’ve got a blog that appeals to technical communication professionals, we’d got a special offer for you. Blog about [deleted] and we’ll send you a free [shameless sponsor] T-shirt courtesy of [shameless sponsor].

[boring details snipped]

Supplies are limited. T-shirts XL only.

XL only?!? In that case, forget it.

Now, if they were offering chocolate

On a completely unrelated note, I’d like to mention that I’ll be presenting at the STC Trans-Alpine Chapter conference on April 18-20. In Switzerland, which as you probably know is famous for watches, banks, and <cough> chocolate.

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