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HelpNDoc – A free (but not FOSS) help writing tool

June 30, 2011

I recently started to write the help for a new project of mine (see here for details), so I was in the market for a new help-writing tool for Windows. I had previously been a happy user, and paid-up licensee, of the well-known Help and Manual, but I wanted to move away from that for several reasons:

  • My ancient (legal) copy of H&M 3.4 seemed unhappy on Windows 7.
  • I couldn’t afford to buy the latest version of H&M.
  • I wanted something that any contributors to my FOSS projects could use to update the help.

So, I started casting about for a FOSS alternative, and for a while came up empty handed. I suspect that fact that most programmers don’t like writing documentation (I rather enjoy it) means they don’t want to write tools to help them do it. For a bit, I toyed with the idea of writing something myself, but GUI programming is not really what I’m into. And then I came across HelpNDoc, by IBE Software (with whom I have absolutely no relationship).

Perhaps unfairly, HelpNDoc comes across as a cut-down version of Help & Manual. It has a very clean, almost minimalistic user interface, but most of the features you need to write small-to-medium sized help files are there – I’ll come to the ones that are missing in a moment. You get a reasonably functional word processor, with spell-checking and nice support for tables, and an easy to navigate help-topic tree. Adding new topics is a breeze, as is linking to them inside the word processor.

When it comes to output generation, HelpNDoc can produce plain HTML, Windows CHM help, Word documents and PDF. I tested the HTML, CHM and PDF generation, and they all produce nice looking documents, quickly and easily

Now the bad news – the free version of HelpNDoc (free for personal use), adds a small advertising banner to the footer of each document. This is unobtrusive, and I for one don’t really object. If you do object, there are reasonably priced licenses for the software that remove it.

The other features that I find missing, or just plain irritating in the product are:

  • No support for text styles, or if there is I can’t find it. My help documents consist of a lot of text in a font like Arial, interspersed with code, in a font like Courier New. I really want to be able to switch between these types of text instantly – I don’t want to have to select the font from a drop-down list.
  • I mostly only want to generate one type of document at once, but I want to be able to switch between them easily. In this case I do want to select from a drop-down list!
  • There is a Close Project button on the toolbar right next to the Save Project button. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve hit that by mistake. I didn’t lose any work, but it’s very irritating. Note to GUI designers – the toolbar is for things you do often, there is no need for commands like Close Project to be there at all.

But that’s about it, I spent several hours working with HelpNDoc producing the Swine documentation, and mostly it was a pleasant experience. If you need to produce Windows help documents, and you either don’t mind paid-for software or you can put up with the advert footer, I suggest giving it a look.

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