My first experience with creating help files came a fair few years ago, whilst eagerly reading a dusty Microsoft programming manual.
I remember thinking that creating even the simplest form of online help seemed a mammoth task. Inserting appropriate tags here, using curious line breaks there, saving in special file formats somewhere else.
What a load of tosh.
But surely my experience was simply a result of living in pre-popular computing times, when Microsoft didn't even have a website and WYSIWYG was merely a new fangled toupee?
Hmm, true, but even today most programmers avoid the task of creating their own help files. Way too difficult. Or is it?
Before writing this review, I personally dabbled with a number of leading help file creation tools. Some were too expensive, others focused purely on the enterprise scene, and yet others were just too darn difficult.
In this review, I'm taking a geek peek at EasyHelp, one of the elite couple that caught my eye.
It claims to make writing a help file easier than, err, it was. So let's see how it measures up...
The problem with many of the help programs I found was that they spent too much time trying to recreate an internal Word-like package that allowed the user to visually create help files. And that meant they forgot about silly little things, like usability.
Thankfully EON Solutions didn't. In fact, their program doesn't even ship with an EXE. Instead, EasyHelp is a Microsoft Word add-in. And it's cunningly simple.
My installation ate around 7MB of hard disk space, from a 30-day evaluation download of around 2.5MB.
During setup, EasyHelp detects your copy of Microsoft Word and configures itself appropriately. And whether you're using Word 6, 7, 97 or 2000—or are attempting to create help files for Windows 3.1, 95, 98 or NT—you'll be in good company—all are supported.
Creating a new help file is actually quite a doddle. You simply fire up Word, click File, New, then—instead of selecting 'Blank Document' or 'Professional Fax' as you typically would—choose the 'EasyHelp' template.
After initially saving the document, you can start your future help file. Quite simply, you just start typing. Following my early experiences with the world's worst help file creators (a possible new Channel 5 documentary?)—this seemed too good to be true.
Still, being the eternal optimist, I started. I tapped out a title, then a chunk of text for the body. Next, I started what I wanted to become the second page, plus added a little more writing.
Next up, I clicked Process, which whizzes and whirs to zap out a help compatible RTF file. Finally, I pressed Build—which compiles and launches the final help file.
And boy, was I impressed. In front of me, I found one long page containing all the text I'd tapped out. Sure, it wasn't Microsoft quality, but you've got to start somewhere. Hey, I'd actually created my own Windows help file!
So there was my entire text on one whopping great page. Next up, it's recommended you split that mass of writing into individual topics. So perhaps 'Introduction', then 'Common Questions', maybe 'Support'. It's your call.
Thankfully this is also exceptionally easy. I just selected the titles of what I wanted to become the individual topics—and clicked the Topic button. After specifying a name, that was it.
I processed it all again—and EasyHelp had divided my test file up into two separate help file topics. Wow.
Still, I thought, this beast must fall down somewhere. Nothing could be this easy.
So I went ahead and started getting difficult. I added multi-coloured text, numerous mixed fonts, a hyperlink to my www.karlmoore.com homepage, a numbered list, bullet points—even a picture.
And just to be extra troublesome, I added a link on the first topic across to the second, by clicking the Link button.
Seconds later, I tested the help file once more.
And by jove, everything worked. Everything!
Of the many help file products I've seen, this one has to be the simplest.
Creation consists of just a few easy-to-follow steps, with extra configuration options—such as title colours and searchable keywords—for power users.
Definitely one of the market leaders and certainly worth the #x/$c registration cost.
Whether you're building help files for Windows 3.1, 95, 98 or NT—if you're looking for the easiest solution, remember one name: EasyHelp.
You can download a 30-day evaluation copy of EasyHelp from www.eon-solutions.com