Needed: The U-Tool

I’m in the process of transferring responsibility for The Court to the new Editor-in-Chief, James Stribopoulos. Transitions are difficult in a number of respects, but there’s one aspect of it all that’s made me take another look at the tools available to those of us who work with computers, whether or not on the web; and that’s the business of designing a good operater’s manual. Although what I’m about to worry here has arisen out of that process, it would apply just as well to the production of any sophisticated document aimed at instructing or supporting the user.

The best way to present my difficulty, perhaps, is to address the very first problem I faced: what format should the manual be in? (Yes, I know that in a good world, not even an ideal one, the document would be available in many formats — but in a sense the need for that is the problem, and in any event it raises all manner of conversion issues for the creator.) The answer, of course, depends on what you want from the thing. My own response was that I want the manual to do for the user most of what I’m used to seeing and doing in various places on the web and on my desktop; that is, I want it modestly sophisticated but within the capacity of someone like me, who’s only half-geek, to create easily. Specifically:

  • it should be formatted in any way I like
  • there should be hyperlinks that lead to any point in the document or in any other documents on the server or web
  • graphics should be available, whether photos, graphs, charts or drawings I make
  • hyperlinks should be possible within parts of the graphics, i.e. image maps
  • mousing over certain links, whether in text or graphics, should raise “superior” windows of whatever size I want and whatever content I want
  • sound or video files should be available via a simple viewer
  • tables should be dynamic, if I wish: i.e. sortable by clicking on column heads
  • the document should be cross-platform and readable on the web

So what tools are available to me? I won’t attempt anything like a full analysis — I do have a life — but I’ll touch on the main difficulties with each for these tasks.

Word will get me a lot of the way through my desiderata. I can’t get it to make pop-up windows; and I don’t think it’ll do dynamic tables. But the big problem for me is converting it to a web document: the HTML Word produces is beyond ugly and no one should use it. So I’d need a converter to go to the web. These exist but don’t do a perfect job and formatting then becomes a problem. As well, I pretty much lose my sound and video.
Adobe’s PDF creation tool can take my Word file and make it readable on the web, while preserving all the formatting. PDF would be an acceptable format for the end product, but it doesn’t come with popups and other dynamic aspects. It’s good but a little stodgy.
A wysiwyg HTML editor
There isn’t a good one. And this is perhaps the heart of the problem. I could do much of what I want via HTML (formatting with fonts is a problem), but getting there is no joke. The power HTML editors like Dreamweaver are fine but way too complex. What is lacking is a great visual, what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor, which should be puzzling given that the web has been around in pretty much the same way for quite a long time now. At any rate, with HTML I could do most everything I want, but only with considerable effort and expertise.
Perhaps surprisingly, PowerPoint offers a lot of the functionality that Word has and the graphical tricks that Word lacks. I could do worse, I think, than compose a manual in PowerPoint. I’d have to wrestle the master slide into shape, so that it would accommodate the greater amount of body text that a manual requires. It feels like a hack, though, to use this program in this way; and although most people have PowerPoint, perhaps, it isn’t directly viewable on the web.
This, I think, would be my ultimate choice if there were an easy way of creating a decent Flash file, because it has all of the functionality I require and then some. But, as I say, it isn’t easy to create a properly interactive Flash movie.

There is a raft of other programs out there, from desktop publishing programs through screen capture programs and on to integrated content management systems. But they are hardly likely to be the “people’s choice” because of the skill it takes to operate them. I need a U-Tool, the universal tool that will integrate all of the various publishing features available now in a way that is fairly easy to use.

So in the absence of a U-Tool what would you do? What am I missing in the world of applications? I could lower my sights and make do with some but not all of the functionality I’d like. But because that functionality is out there, albeit in bits and pieces, I don’t think I’m being greedy in wanting it for myself.


  1. Nothing innovative here, but what about a collaborative document that could extend before & after the transition period? I’m thinking of something like basecamp or a google doc.

  2. Nothing to do with the handyperson’s special, but well done – and thanks – for piloting The Court this far.

  3. I don’t have an imaginative idea to contribute, but as I have suffered through a Dalhousie website redesign for what seems like an eternity, I have had similar thoughts re: the delivery of content and it is reassuring to see that I am not the only one. It seems to me that the technology is not quite there for the all in one solution that we crave. Specific programs do certain things very well, but it is difficult to find a tool that offers everything we would like. As it is, we have to try and pull together an imperfect solution with the tools that are available to us. As it stands now, I try to keep my ear to the ground and attempt to stay informed of new developments. Slaw happens to be a great place to do that.

  4. Here’s an interesting open source tool that does some of the stuff on your list: