Most RoboHelp users are familiar with the Topic Properties dialog. It is, in my opinion, one of the most used dialogs inside the application because of the variety of information it contains. It can be accessed from the WYSIWYG Editor, Project Manager Pod or Topic List Pod but it has one major drawback. If accessed from the WYSIWYG Editor or Project Manager pod it only affects a single topic. This may be fine, but what happens when you’ve imported 200 topics from another project and you need to apply a master page to them.
The Topic List pod is the answer to a lot of these questions. Its beauty, and therefore usefulness, is in its ability to select multiple topics. With these selected, entering the Topic Properties dialog allows you to apply a significant number of properties to all the selected topics. The list below shows most (but not all) of what can be changed:
- Adding topics to an index keyword / subkeyword
- Assigning a style sheet
- Assigning a master page
- Moving topics between project folders
- Adding topics to the Table of Contents
- Assigning a Conditional Build Tag
- Deleting unwanted topics
- Setting topic status
- Selecting / unselecting To Do List Items
- Change the topic language.
Because of its usefulness I’d be lost without the Topic List pod being docked or pinned to the bottom margin of my RoboHelp environment. You can dock or pin it anywhere, but because of the many topic properties that can be displayed, it lends itself to be displayed horizontally across the user interface.
If the mere presence of the Topics List pod isn’t itself enough, you can sort the topics displayed in the pod by clicking on a column heading. One click sorts them in descending order, another ascending. Oh and if the column headings aren’t to your liking, you can change the default values by right clicking on any column heading. This allows you to toggle on or off a particular column or add one of your own. To add one of your own, select the More right click menu item. This displays the Choose Topic List Detail dialog that not only allows you to choose the exact columns to display, but also their display order and column width.
Tip: You can also set a column width and set the column order directly from the Topics List pod in the same way as in Microsoft Excel.
I heard a news item on the radio going to work yesterday which made me think. It featured a Computer Science teacher whose students were being taught how to program using Visual Basic. However as a slightly bizarre distraction he was getting them to program an old BBC Microcomputer circa 1982 using Basic. The logic behind the move was to get the students thinking of the size of their code they created, due to the 64kb RAM limitations of the machine.
As a slightly long in the tooth technical communicator who remembers the Sinclair Spectrum with deep affection, it got me thinking whether we are losing the grasp of producing clear, concise documentation. When I formally entered the technical communication profession WinHelp was the standard help output. Earlier on in my career before Adam was a lad, I used SCRIPT/VS on an IBM mainframe to produce hardcopy documents.
These days we’d laugh at the simplicity of the above tools. Modern day help authoring tools, like RoboHelp, are so feature rich that it is easy to lose sight of the actual content. DHMTL, scripts, popups and links are all widely used to display help. Then there is the technology that we writers use to produce a shiny new help file. We even seem to crave new functionality submitting more and more feature requests.
Don’t get me wrong, this is truly admirable. After all we have to give what our users expect, and they expect a lot. My point is that if we are not careful it is very easy to deliver content that is easy to find, looks aesthetically pleasing but which leaves the user dumbfounded. Like the Computer Science students, maybe it wouldn’t do us any harm to occasionally go back and concentrate on the content a little bit more.
Producing concise, clear and readable documentation is just one of the traits of a Technical Writer. But how often do we stop to check whether what we write meets this need? Indeed what are the targets we need to check against? Thanks to Catherine Hibbard (@WritingTechDocs) who tweeted about a text analyzer tool, we can go some way to doing so.
The analyzer checks text against the Coleman Liau index, Flesh Kincaid Grade Level, ARI (Automated Readability Index) and SMOG to calculate its readability. Once complete, it gives an indication of the number of years of education a person needs to be able to understand it after the first reading.
Just in case I was committing a series of cardinal technical communication errors myself, I ran the above text through it. I was a little relieved to get a score of 12.42. That reminds me of the Groucho Marx line, “A child of six could understand this. Someone get me a child of six.”
A short while ago Adobe ran a couple of webinars on how RoboHelp can be used to produce policy and procedure documentation. To some this may seem a strange departure from a Technical Writer’s traditional world of online help, user guides and release documentation. However anyone who has used RoboHelp will know it can be applied to any number of purposes.
Getting back to work after a 16 day vacation is never a pleasant experience. There are all those emails to catch up on and a queue of people wanting your time. As if that wasn’t bad enough, once you get home there is a pile of washing and ironing for a bit of light relief. Amongst the emails to catch up for me today were requests for meetings, project updates and news items from my contacts in the communication industry. One in particular caught my eye.
Adobe has announced the addition of a Technical Communications channel to their online TV network. What this means is that all technical communicators can get free training, inspiration, tips & tricks, interviews and information about Adobe products & services all from one place. However unlike an ordinary TV channel, it enables you to watch what you want, when you want and where you want.
Adobe TV is of course nothing new, it’s been around since 2008, but one of the exciting additions of this channel is the ease with which you can share content. Not satisfied with merely posting episodes, Adobe has added the ability to:
- Save episodes to your own library for viewing later.
- Add comments on the content.
- Embed the video into a blog.
- Share the content on FaceBook, Digg, Del.icio.us and Stumble Upon.
More and more content is being added to the channel in the coming weeks so I’d recommend you subscribe to it. You can find it at: