Single sourcing – The Holy Grail of HATs
I remember my first role as a Technical Author. The previous incumbent of the role was the Managing Director who managed to produce some very rough and ready help files on the odd Sunday afternoon. Needless to say they were pretty hopeless. He admitted as much when he interviewed me. On getting my feet under the desk I set about establishing the requirements of the tools I needed to perform the job to a higher standard than he had managed so far.
One of the criteria was that we needed to have the facility to produce Word and PDF documents from the help file source. As it turned out, this was to become less of an issue for us over time. However I set about establishing the tools that allowed me to achieve the holy grail of a Help Authoring Tool. Many promised much, yet they all failed at the final hurdle. Sure they all achieved the desired result but not at the click of a button. They all required a level of customisation after the print file was produced.
Author IT was the early contender for the crown. It still is according to many, but the fairly steep learning curve involved in its use made it less attractive. RoboHelp certainly had the ability to do what I wanted but the versions around at the time had a lot of issues with tables, bullets and DHTML. All this necessitated a fair bit of reformatting of the Word file before it could be described as presentable. Recent versions of RoboHelp have improved the process no end but there is still likely to be a little customisation required.
The real issue here is that there really is no sure fire single source tool an there probably never will be. Think of it as taking the engine from a Corvette and sticking it into a Ford Fiesta. Yes you could probably do it but you’d have to perform a fair bit of work to achieve the required result. Likewise taking the HTML code from RoboHelp and outputting to Word has certain undesirable results. Before you blame this on RoboHelp, try saving a Word file as HTML and look at the propriety code generated in the process. Compare this to the HTML generated by RoboHelp as you will start to see that they are chalk and cheese.
No doubt someone, somewhere will create a truely single source solution one day. When they do, they will almost certainly gain the upper hand. Until this day, people like me just have to accept that producing multiple outputs from the same source involves some additional work.