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© 2009 Ugur Akinci
There are some great and free help file applications out there. All of them use Microsoft’s HTML Help engine but they are designed and packaged very differently.
The differences between the two are obvious: one was designed by developers for developers (Precision) while the other was designed for technical communicators and non-developers in mind (HelpMaker).
I believe in the “Don’t Make Me Think” design philosophy. An application’s logic and levers should be transparent to the end user. If I’m forced to think how to make an application work, if I’m forced to solve one puzzle after another to complete a simple and basic procedure, then I give a failing grade to that application, like I the one I gave to Precision.
I’m not saying Precision is a bad tool. It’s not. It’s as sophisticated an HTML help editor as they come. But to me it’s clear that it was not designed with average technical user and communicator in mind.
The designers of HelpMaker have obviously started with the question: “What is the first thing a help file author would like to do?” Why, create a new help project of course.
Then HelpMaker designers proceeded to design a WIZARD SCREEN to take the user by the hand and create a new project easily, in a step-by-step fashion.
And how would you create a new help project? By creating new pages, or topics, and stringing them together.
And once you have your topics, what would you like to do? Edit and create them. It’s as simple as that. Simple answers to simple questions. That’s the way good design should work.
HelpMaker’s clean, simple interface follows precisely that procedural logic, step by step.
Just minutes after you download and install HelpMaker you can start creating your own help file, with pictures, formatting and all since it allows you to edit text right inside the application window.
Precision, despite all its sophistication, is a different story all together.
After you download and launch Precision you find yourself looking at an intimidating and complex main window. You just stand there looking at this gorgeous main window, without a clue as to what to do next…
After bumbling for a while, you manage to create a new project and add new “templates” to it. But when it comes to editing the template pages or creating original help topics from scratch things get a bit complicated. The reason is Precision does not allow in-application editing. It launches MS Word (or any other word editor you prefer) and invites you to do your editing inside Word.
Here is my personal experience with Precision-Word integration: when I tired to save my changes, Word refused to do so, telling me I needed to close down the copy already open in the help project first. But when I did that I lost the very object that I wanted to edit. I couldn’t understand how to keep a topic open and edit it in Word at the same time since sometimes I also got the feedback that my copy was for read only. Solution? I needed to create a backup copy and then MERGE that with the original topic! Oh Lord…
I really think that by studying the HelpMaker interface the Precision designers can learn a few things about great design that has not the object-oriented programmers but technical communicators in mind. Since most of the help files today are written and edited by technical communicators, I think that would be correct focus for the future development of this promising freeware editor (Precision) that comes loaded with features.
I’ll revisit HelpMaker in the future and report on many sophisticated features of this easy-to-use winner.