Tools of the Trade

Choosing Help Authoring Tools:
What Are Your Choices?

By Char James-Tanny

Whatever your official title, if you are a Help author, then you use Help Authoring Tools (HAT) and HAT vendors want your business. Whether you have just joined the field, are considered an expert, or are somewhere in between, you face the challenge of deciding which tools to use. Many factors influence your decision. This two-part article explores these factors for some of the more popular HATs available today. Part I provides a comprehensive overview. Part II, which will appear in the January/February issue of the Broadside, will outline the factors to consider when choosing different tools.

What Tools Are We Talking About?

For this article, I discuss the following tools:

ForeFront’s ForeHelp is no longer included in this list. On January 2, 2002, ForeFront went out of business and ComponentOne announced that it had acquired three key technologies from them: InterHelp, MIF import, and Help Server Studio (an unreleased product).


The current list of possible outputs includes:

You can also produce printed or PDF output, although the method depends on the tool. For example, if you are developing your project with Adobe® FrameMaker or Microsoft Word, then you will use them to print. Some tools let you repurpose your project to print, including all or selected content. Other tools let you single-source to print, using conditional text to control the output.

The following lists provide features, limitations, and possible HATs for these outputs.

WinHelp 4

HTML Help 1.x

Recently, a group of independent consultants collaborated on a project to compare the HTML, CSS, and HTML Help output of several tools. The results include the file sizes of the HTML Help, CSS, and HTML files; the HTML and CSS validation results; and output samples, providing developers with another source of information when comparing tools. Some developers may need to compare file sizes, which affect download speeds for users with dialup access, while other developers may be interested in the validation results. David Knopf of Knopf Online is hosting the results at

HTML-based Help

JavaHelp and Oracle Help for Java

For a summary of the preceding information, please visit my Web site. There, you’ll find a comparison chart including more information on these tools, plus URLs for other tools not mentioned here. If you’re using Acrobat 4, go to or for Acrobat 5, go to

You can also download a PowerPoint presentation ( You’ll notice that to find the optimal solution, you must move between main categories. For example, your users may all use Microsoft® Windows®, but maybe the default browser is Netscape and IE isn’t even installed. In this case, typical Windows solutions (such as HTML Help) may not be an option.

Char James-Tanny has more than 20 years of experience as a technical writer and is well known in the Help community for her knowledge of online Help tools and concepts. Author of two books, she speaks frequently at conferences around the world. Char is a senior member of STC’s Boston Chapter and a 2003 WinHelp Microsoft MV. You can reach her at .

Editor’s Note: Part 2 of this article,” Choosing Help Authoring Tools: What Factors Affect Your Decision?,” will appear in the January/February issue of the Boston Broadside. It will outline factors you need to consider when choosing a Help Authoring Tool.