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Edit: Some clarifications:

  • We already use Help and Manual for our help files
  • The question is really what to use that allows us to make hyperlinks from help file to presentation, and back, and still have presentation be "easily presentable".

I'll look into the answer about converting PowerPoint files to HTML first, to see if that works for us. It very well might.


I apologize for the long question, and I tagged it subjective, because there probably is no single answer.


We're in a position where we're re-evaluating the tools we use to provide various sources of information for our end-users.

Here's what we have to date:

  • CHM files with help for our product (or a bunch of .html files for network shares)
  • PowerPoint files with presentations, used during workshops and classes in using our product
  • Html files and similar with eLearning tools
  • A word file with all the technical changes and product changes, bugfixes, etc. that we do from one major release to the next

What we're finding is that it would be hugely beneficial to try to integrate everything into one product.

My question is this: Has anyone been in this situation, and what did you do? What tools did you look at, did you find any good ones, what are you doing now? Our main problem with integrating everything into one system is that the PowerPoint part, where you put up a slide of keywords on a projector, and then move from slide to slide, becomes problematic unless the integrated system has some kind of "projector mode" with easy navigation, something that pure html pages doesn't, unless they're coded with that in mind.

Anyway, the benefits...

For one, we could provide stable hyperlinks from one "system" to another, so that for instance the presentations can contain links to the relevant parts of the help file. The users get their own copy of the presentation files when they leave our class, so they can open them up and use them when they get back to their own workplace, and as such it would be nice to make it easy for them to find related material, without relying on them, or their IT personnel to do everything 100% correctly when placing the files on their machines.

With our current setup, a hyperlink from the PowerPoint file has a relative address to the corresponding part of the help file, and if the user doesn't organize the PowerPoint and .HTML files in the same way locally (for instance, the directory is renamed, everything is in one folder, etc.), then the links doesn't work, even though the files are there.

For the help files we're using Help and Manual, and we're thinking of standardizing on this product for most of the things. The eLearning part is maintained by a separate company, so we're not sure if we want to bring that into the mix now.

Here's what we think we can gain by integrating the changelog+technical info, the help file, and the class documentation into one system:

  • Stable hyperlinks, that works. No more "make sure the PowerPoint files and the html help files are located in this exact way on your local disk", between all the systems.
  • One table of contents, and one index, which brings together all the systems into one (for the user it will appear the help file just got a lot more information)
  • Various outputs: We can produce a single .CHM file, a set of html files, a word file, a pdf file, all with clickable, working, hyperlinks, and various other bonuses for finding related material, from the same source project. No cut-and-paste from one system to another.
  • We can integrate everything into the help system in our product. When the user clicks on the help button on a form in our product, they not only can see the direct help file, but they would be able to find the class presentations that were used to teach those things, as well as links to technical information the IT personnel can use to troubleshoot things, or configure things.
  • Multiple people can work on the same material here at our place, at the same time. With PowerPoint and Word files into the mix, they quickly become bottlenecks in hectic periods, and Help and Manual allows multiple people to work on the same projects at the same time.
  • Reuse assets, images and screenshots produced for one "system" can be reused in another without making duplicates, update one (when a new major release changes the layout, colors, etc.) and we update them all

What we lose:

  • PowerPoint presentation mode. One thing we wonder about is holding the actual classes, as the presenter now has a html file instead, and has to make sure to point the mouse to the "next page" button (that Help and Manual adds), instead of being able to use one of those clicker-devices to quickly go to the next and previous slide. Also, no "one keyword at a time" effects on slides.

So, any thoughts?

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6 Answers 6

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Have you considered converting the Powerpoint presentations to HTML and bundling it with HTML Help in its own section? ("Presentation" for example). There are various tools out there that can do this in batch, even free.

Our main problem with integrating everything into one system is that the PowerPoint part, where you put up a slide of keywords on a projector, and then move from slide to slide, becomes problematic unless the integrated system has some kind of "projector mode" with easy navigation, something that pure html pages doesn't, unless they're coded with that in mind.

With CHMs you can place the same navigation on each page pretty painlessly as shown here in the navigate buttons:

alt text

When doing the presentations in class, use the PPT files for fullscreen. When the students need to reference it, everything is in one simple CHM file for them. No additional downloads or installs, CHM viewer should be available for them in their Windows environment. If you want to reference a part in the presentation, it's easy to hyperlink to other pages in the CHM. Students can use the back button in the CHM viewer to go back to where they were prior to clicking the hyperlink.

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This looks very promising, the html as powerpoint tools that is. –  Lasse V. Karlsen Sep 24 '09 at 20:13
    
The best part is, they don't need to open a second program when you want to reference a page in the powerpoint slide. CHM files can easily reference other pages within the document. –  John T Sep 25 '09 at 4:32
    
an annoying fact with CHM on the other hand is that trying to open it from a network share is kind of problematic. the ie (used to render the html) complains about security stuff... –  akira Sep 29 '09 at 5:26

Sounds like a job for something like SharePoint. I've only limited experience in it myself, but it would seem to do all the things you need it to do.

Be aware though that the full functionality only comes with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS), a basic Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) setup is likely to leave you wanting more. The kicker? WSS is free, MOSS not so free!

There are open source alternatives, but I'll leave others to propose specific packages as I'm even less familiar with them.

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Although SharePoint would probably work, we need something that we can bring out to our users, and that they can download and get a copy of for their own machines at their workplace. Since we deliver software to hospitals and similar industries, most of the time they do not have any form of internet connection from their workplace, which means any hosted-by-us solution is not really an option. –  Lasse V. Karlsen Sep 17 '09 at 10:11
    
And by "download", I mean that they can get IT personnel to download and install it for them. –  Lasse V. Karlsen Sep 17 '09 at 10:12

Sorry if I have not got the gist of exactly what you want, but I think I may have-

Personally, I have two products that I sell that require enormous documentation. I do what Microsoft does with distribution of help files.

One CD that contains it all -

an auto run file that launches a web page on the cd, it has a nice layout and good directory structure.

You could have /lectures, /documents, /help e.t.c. or /topic1/lectures/ e.t.c.

you can have shared resources (e.g. images) in /resources/pictures

... You can then easily hand out a disk to everyone at the end of training, and include it with your product. Giving new versions is easy... and at any point, you can just copy the root of the disk to a website and then the whole disk is available online! (just use relative paths instead of direct ones).

I have used so many content management systems over the years, but I honestly think that just doing it yourself, and using the above method is best.

I have refined it slightly by using things such as FlashPaper as well as providing a link to the document.

Anyway, hope you like and feel free to ask questions.

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My company also uses Help & Manual, and I believe it's probably the way you should go. The user interface is not that hard to master, and it's the only authoring product I know that supports all the formats you've listed.

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I use doxygen to do everything you are describing, except the Powerpoint presentation. Doxygen sounds, at a high level, similar to 'Help and manual', is cross platform and very highly configurable. If you're familar with javadoc or similar 'tag-based' doc systems, you already are halfway there. It creates highly hyperlinked, graphical documents. It's designed for API reference manuals, but I have 'abused' it to generate just about every document type you can imagine.

Not sure what language your documenting, but doxygen supports many and you can filter unsuported languages to generate the output you need. For example, although not officially supported, I routinely use doxygen to document my VB code. I have often generated chm files containing code class and collaboration diagrams as well as user defined diagrams directly from my source code. I typically make HTML, but have also produced PDF and RTF. They have all the hyperlinks you'd find in the HTML document.

Doxygen automatically picks up lots of links from the structure of your software. The primary downside I have found is that if you don't like the look doxygen provides by default, you have to write your own cascading style sheet. I never have, so frankly, I don't know how much style might be hard coded in the HTML produced by doxygen.

Looks as if Help & manual uses XML as it's file format. doxygen can produce XML. An xml stylesheet would allow you to translate one format to the other. You'd have to write this yourself, but you'd have all the links between all you documents in place.

For me, one of the primary advantages of using doxygen has nothing to do with it's ability to generate documents. It's that it allows me to treat all my documentation exactly the same as my source code. It's in the same repository, I can see and manage diffs and I tag / branch the docs along with the code. For me this is huge.

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I believe Zimbra can help you :)

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