Thorough, detailed, and up-to-date documentation is one of the keys to success for any software application. Dr. Explain makes it easy (almost too easy) to create and maintain CHM help files, web-based HTML documentation, and even printable manuals.
Ask any developer to name his or her least favorite development-related tasks, and there’s a good chance that “creating documentation” will appear very close to the the top of that list.
While writing docs may not be nearly as sexy as architecting or slinging code, it’s a critically important component to any successful software project. Skimpy, incomplete, or disorganized documentation is not only a major impediment to new user adoption, it reflects poorly on the rest of the application, and even on your company as a whole. Despite what you may have heard, people do RTFM. Your software’s help file is invariably the first place users turns for assistance; if they can’t make head or tails of it, your chances of converting that trial download to a cash sale just went down considerably.
On the other hand, well-documented software is easier to sell, easier for your customers to train new users on, and much easier for you to support. Thorough, detailed, up-to-date help is one of the keys to helping users be productive, and productive users are happy users.
Of course, documenting software is time-consuming and tedious, right? I used to think so too. That was until I discovered a solution that makes the entire process easier and quicker than I ever thought possible.
Help That Practically Writes Itself
Dr. Explain from Indigo Byte Systems is a software help authoring tool. It provides a powerful, intuitive user interface for composing a tree-navigable help system for Windows/WPF, Java, and Flash applications, as well as Web sites. From a single source file, it can export to CHM, HTML, and rich text format (RTF). This helps you maintain all of your docs in one place while keeping everything consistent and timely – whether you electronically distribute help with your application, host it online, or deliver printed copies in the box.
While Dr. Explain has all the features you’d expect from a comprehensive help authoring system, it does one special thing amazingly well, which in my mind places it head and shoulders above other offerings in this category. Dr. Explain takes the most difficult, time-consuming, and tedious part of the documentation process – the annotation of user interfaces – and totally automates it.
Yes, you read that right. Let the built-in object capture tool take a screenshot of any part of your application – from a simple dialog, to a full window, to a web form…
…and from there it analyzes the structure, finds all the significant GUI elements, and automatically creates numbered callouts for all of them!
It optionally allows you to associate a definable portion of the screenshot with each annotation, and displays it (along with the descriptive text you provide) at the bottom. This provides helpful visual cues to your readers, as you can see from the CHM output.
A screenshot of the HTML output shows how a consistent look and feel is maintained between the CHM and HTML output.
Providing guidance for all the different screens in your application lies at the heart of effective documentation. Even with the drawing tools provided by many authoring systems, this process can take hours, even days. By scaffolding screenshot-based help topics in mere minutes, Dr. Explain dramatically cuts the time required to accomplish this task. Capture the screenshot, add the necessary descriptive text to the automatically generated annotations, and you’re practically done.
But Wait, There’s More…
Despite its amazing screenshot annotation abilities, Dr. Explain is no one-trick pony. It facilitates many other help-building functions as well, including the integration of context-sensitive (F1) help directly into any application; navigation tree management; creation of keyword indexes; full-featured RTF text editing with Unicode support; templating, theme, and CSS support; and lots more. All of this is included in the $125 standard license.
For an additional $40, an “advanced license” is available which unlocks some very spiffy features, the slickest of which is the ability to have Dr. Explain automatically crawl the entire submenu structure of a Win32 application on one go:
Other advanced features include the ability to invoke the Dr. Explain engine from the command line; the creation of pop-up tooltips; and a tool to generate Google sitemaps from HTML help pages.
To learn more; feel free to avail yourself of any of the following handy resources:
- Dr. Explain features overview
- A six-minute YouTube video demonstrating Dr. Explain in action
- The Dr. Explain user forum
- Pricing and licensing options
Whether your goal is to sell more software, reduce the burden on your help desk staff, or simply to pave an easier path to adoption for your open-source project, producing and providing excellent help documentation is critically important. Dr. Explain is an incredibly useful tool for this purpose, especially if your help files rely heavily on UI illustrations. Its automatic annotation capabilities perform nearly flawlessly, and cut the time required to generate screenshot-based help topic by several orders of magnitude.
A trial version is available that you may use as long as you wish. Until you register, you’ll be limited to five help topics per project, and all screen captures will be watermarked. While obviously not suitable for production work, it’s more that enough to let you try out the many features for yourself.
At $125 for a single-user license, Dr. Explain could easily pay for itself several times over in the scope of a single project, merely based on the amount of time saved. For $165, the Advanced License unlocks additional features you’re sure to find useful as well.