Find the Right HAT: Choosing an Online Help Authoring Tool

Red F1 Help KeyHas your organization decided to put user manuals, training, and help documents online? Are you the lucky one tasked with accomplishing this technical feat? Do you have any idea where to start?

First, you need to know what a Help Authoring Tool (HAT) is and why you might want one. An HAT is an off-the-shelf solution to managing content that may have multiple outputs and multiple authors and that is designed to be easy to use. Technical writers and authors using an HAT can focus on the content and the layout without the need to learn and understand the technology under the hood. These tools allow content to be accessed and searched like a website, and to be compiled into printable documents by simply adjusting the settings.

An HAT is used to reduce the overhead of staff because they do not require programming skills and they utilize WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get). It automates time consuming tasks, streamlines workflows and allows a more efficient approach to authoring.

Because there are so many options it can be daunting to begin your search. Before you start hunting for vendors and tools, you need to answer some key questions so that you know what you are looking for in a tool, and to determine whether you need one in the first place. Your choice of tool is important for several reasons:

  • The reusability and longevity of the content.
  • The ability to publish in multiple formats.
  • The author and long-term content manager’s technical skills.

Will the content be interactive, have multiple authors, change frequently, need to allow multiple paths for learning or use and need to be indexed or sorted? Walk through the questions below to think through your needs.

What Type of Content Will Be Housed Online?

If the content that needs to be online is merely a collection of existing documentation, such as PowerPoints used for training or Word files containing User Manuals that are updated infrequently, the choice may be very simple. Perhaps all you need is a SharePoint site, Wiki, Blog, or Google Drive folder in which to post your documents for users to read and print.

  • Will you be using multimedia, such as audio, video, or animation, or is the content text only?
  • What is the level of interactivity for the content? Is it passive (click for next screen), limited interactivity with maybe some explanations, navigation, and branching, or is it highly interactive with adaptive learning paths?

If the content needs to be interactive or contain multi-media, you may need a Help Authoring Tool. An example is content or eLearning modules in which a specific path or flow is not predetermined and linear.

What is the Skill Set of the Author or Authors and Editors?

Does your author have a technical background? If your author and those who will manage the content later are also experienced programmers, then you can have them post the content and develop the underlying structure for indexing and linking. However, many technical writers are writers first and don’t have deep technical or programming knowledge.

If your author is a Subject Matter Expert with no previous experience designing web pages or linkable Tables of Contents, it will be expensive to take the time and funds to teach them a new technology platform. What is the experience level of the person or people who will need to make updates and changes going forward? If you don’t want to invest in training all of these authors and editors in programming, then an HAT will save you training dollars and get your content up and running quickly.

Are there multiple authors who need to collaborate to develop and maintain the content? A Help Authoring Tool can help to manage the content with the Single Source publishing principle. Single source publishing allows one shared text source that has built-in controls  for who is editing the content and when, and allows for multiple outputs both online and printed.

Who Will Access the Content and How?

Research shows that most people today prefer searching for information online versus pulling a book or manual from a shelf. Will your readers and users be viewing the content online, printing out forms as needed, completing and submitting surveys? How often will users be viewing the content? There are times that users will need to print or have access to printed versions of the content.

If users need to access the content in multiple formats an HAT can help and you will need to be sure that the tool you select can provide it, whether it is WebHelp, MS Help, PDFs, or Word.

What is the Future of the Content?

How will the content be maintained? If there will be multiple authors updating the content, having an HAT helps to ensure that there is only one current version and the one that users access is always the most current. If used properly, your readers will know that the form they need to submit or the policy that they are reading is up to date through single source publishing and version control.

If multiple authors and version control is necessary, your options will be reduced because only a few support simultaneous editing by several authors. These support genuine single source with fine-tuning and export of documents, conditional text, snippets, variables, and other handy functions for managing content.

Some Options to Consider

Once you have a clearer picture of the content that will be needed, how users will need to access the content, who is authoring and managing it and their skillsets, you can begin to list out your requirements and match them to some of the tools available.  The biggest difference in the tools is where and how authors put together and format texts.

Options range from Wikis and Blogs to website development tools, to rapid application development tools (robust interactive apps), E-Learning Development tools or Help Authoring Tools all the way to 2D or 3D simulation software, gaming development environments and virtual world simulations.

Some of your choices include:

  • If interactivity requirements are low and the content has one author, consider a Wiki or a Blog to post content online, or a very basic option that is a mere converter used to plug content into templates, but that creates book type formats that just happen to be online and are not modular.
  • Rapid e-Learning authoring tools are easy to use and enable authors to use PowerPoint or Word that is easily converted to online screens. Interactive features can be easily added so SMEs or writers with no page design or programming experience can create training modules/content easily. These may have a cookie-cutter look and feel but they reduce costs because it is easy to produce content, with a very short learning curve, and they are relatively inexpensive. It is simple to quickly and easily make changes and redeploy content, which is critical if content changes frequently.  Many of these tools have templates and skins so authors can quickly and easily build screens without skilled developer interventions. This saves huge amounts of time, reduces the requirement for technical expertise, and simplifies the authoring process, since authors are just populating a template rather than engineering the whole screen. Multiple templates can be created to vary the look and feel of the content.
  • Hosted solutions may be an option, but they tend to be less flexible and security may not be as high, but these tools lower the cost of maintenance, hardware and network infrastructure.
  • If you are looking to create media rich e-Learning or content, be sure that the tool can add interactions after conversion.
  • For extremely interactive content and e-Learning, there are 2D and 3D simulation or game design software that requires more extensive IT support and technical knowledge.

Be sure to lay out a budget and keep in mind IT your requirements:

  • There will be some support required for the tool.
  • Check for compatibility with your existing tools.

You may want to add additional tools later if your needs grow.  The E-learning Guild in 2008 reported that 76% of their members use more than one tool, and 39% use four or more.

A Help Authoring Tools does have a downside. Each one is limiting in terms of content reuse and differs in terms of the technical knowledge that is required to make full use of the package.  For example, MadCap Flare is helped by knowledge of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and outputs, while Adobe RoboHelp is more difficult to use for linking to Word or FrameMaker documents. Author-It provides numerous options for single source publishing, but may be overly complex for some authors.  Other options include ComponentOne Doc-to-Help, EC Software Help & Manual, and WebWorks ePublisher, among many others.

Do your research

There are so many ways to take advantage of online authoring technology. Mixing and matching may be the way to go, but be sure to line up your requirements before you shop.

Check out these sites for more information about selecting a Help Authoring Tool:

Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil, Public Domain