When it comes to single sourcing tools (tools for outputting manuals to multiple formats from the same source content), there are a number of popular tools available such as Adobe RoboHelp, Madcap Flare, etc. However we at Essential Instructions are partial to a tool called Help and Manual (H&M) because of its ease of use for non technical writers. In fact we have written a number of blog articles about this tool in the past which you can find on our website. Recently though, we had the opportunity to help a client migrate from Flare to H&M and thought it would be useful to discuss some of the key differences between how these tools operate.
Madcap Flare is no doubt a powerful tool, but falls short on usability. It’s a great tool for technical writers who use it fulltime, day in and day out, but for other content creators within an organization who just want to get in and quickly add or change content, Flare can make life very difficult.
Help and Manual on the other hand looks and feels a bit more like Word and one of its key strengths comes from the fact that the entire UI workflow is organized around the document’s table of contents (TOC). This of course is where Flare is both weak and strong. Flare is weak here because the UI is not organized around the TOC, forcing authors to constantly jump between windows just to find their place, but is strong because it allows for multiple, separate TOC’s to be created on a per-target basis (a target being a specific output such as a manual in a specific format). However, while Help and Manual only operates around one TOC, it’s easy enough to tag different nodes (usually the top level ones) for different targets to contain multiple TOC’s within a single TOC, thus simplifying navigation between different TOC’s while authoring.
Related to the main TOC’s are “mini-TOC’s” which are small TOC’s embedded into a topic which contains child topics. This makes it easier for users to jump to child topics from within a parent topic. Flare creates these automatically, while H&M requires that they be created and maintained manually. However, this manual process does provide an author with ability to customize the mini-TOC in any way they want.
Another big difference is in relation to “targets”. As mentioned above, a target is specific output such as manual in say PDF format. You might then create another target for HTML output and so on. Flare has the formal concept of a “target”, while H&M calls this a “build”. To build multiple targets in Flare requires the creation of a special target which builds other targets, while in H&M builds can be grouped together into “build tasks”. Both tools can handle conditions which are simply variables that can be configured on a per target/build basis if required. It’s hard to say which tool presents this better. Both make them easily accessible though Flare makes options like glossaries more granularly available through definitions on a per target basis.
When it comes to PDF files, H&M in our opinion wins hands down. Their Manual Designer utility makes PDF layout dead simple and completely visual, eliminating the need to deal with indentations, hanging indents, and other parameters which normally require trial and error to get right. The downside is that this visual editor requires good hand eye coordination to get accurate results and the utility itself feels a bit old (like a Windows 3.1 program). However configuring and correcting layout problems in PDF’s is very simple with its WYSIWYG interface.
Tables in H&M are still a bit primitive, lacking the ability to set border styles on a per-row or cell basis, and not allowing build conditions to be set on individual rows. However, table creation is dead simple and operates much like it does in Word 2007, making it dead simple for non-tech writers to add and configure tables.
At a more general level, if you were to put both Flare and H&M in front of a non-technical writer we have no doubt that they would be up and running with H&M first. While there are some more advanced features which may be more involved to implement in H&M, it’s a small price to pay for a single sourcing tool which anyone in your organization can get up and running with.