The difference between knowledge base software and Help Authoring Tools

Catherine Heath | December 10, 2018

There is a close relationship between knowledge bases and Help Authoring Tools (HATs), but there are also key differences between these two types of software.

Because there are similarities, many customers get confused between them. Each software is geared towards providing documentation for internal stakeholders or external users or customers.

Here are the main points to be aware of when choosing between a knowledge base solution or a Help Authoring Tool.

What is knowledge base software

Knowledge bases are often used for customer product documentation, API documentation, software documentation, to help customers self-serve, or support internal staff. The software behind these kinds of sites are known as knowledge base software.

Knowledge base software is used by a wide variety of companies and types of users, and the software sometimes come as an add-on application for help desk tools such as Zendesk.

Knowledge base software is typically a type of website Content Management System (CMS) with many custom features bundled in. It’s an all-in-one publishing and editing tool with version control, review process and categorization capabilities.

The editor is typically WYSIWYG with a focus on easily publishing front-facing content. It also usually has the ability to integrate with your customer support ticketing system.

We wrote a whole knowledge base software guide that goes into much more depth about this topic.

What is a HAT

A Help Authoring Tool is also software used for producing help content, which is intended for publication on a knowledge base and beyond. A HAT is more like a content database, since its purpose is to store your content as files that can be reused, and marked up in a way that defines their correct usage.

Content in your HAT may be published on a variety of formats and reused many times by multiple people. It’s a platform that’s specialized for teams who need to collaborate over documentation in-house, rather than a web publishing tool.

Often HATs are used in the enterprise because they help companies comply with certain regulations and produce large volumes of documentation. For example, many companies in the medical and pharmaceutical industries are legally required to produce a particular number of pages of documentation for their products.

Using a HAT means you’re usually working in a markup language such as XML or HTML, and you are required to “single source” your content.

Latex – a type of markup language

Single source publishing means that you can produce multiple output formats and versions from one shared text base. That means you write your documentation once and export it to multiple formats, saving untold amounts of time and effort.

Publishing to a knowledge base may be one aspect of what a HAT can do, but a HAT’s primary purpose is to produce large volumes of content that can be reused on many platforms.

Knowledge base software examples

There are quite a few knowledge base software solutions now on the market, including our own KnowledgeOwl. There are some key differences in functionality between them, and KnowledgeOwl offers the utmost flexibility for your business.

If there is something you want to do with our software, we can probably find a way to do it. One of our customers said about us:

“KnowledgeOwl is a great piece of software that does exactly what it needs to do, and nothing more. It's thoughtless to the point of never being in your way, allowing you to focus on writing and managing articles instead of spending time messing with options and configurations.

Plus, it allows users to configure multiple KBs on the same account, so I can manage customer-facing documentation on one KB and have internal, staff-only documentation on another. Yatta!” – April J, Director of Operations

HelpDocs is another knowledge base solution that offers CMS editing and category structuring.

Helpjuice is a knowledge base solution with advanced reporting. You also have the option for customers to create a ticket within the platform if their query search doesn’t match a page in the knowledge base.

HAT examples

The Help Authoring Tool software space is dominated by some very popular solutions, which we’ll go into now.

MadCap Flare

The first of these tools is MadCap Flare.

MadCap Flare is mostly used in the technology, healthcare, manufacturing and education industries. Flare lets you write technical docs in XML for reuse across many platforms, and it’s the best option for single sourcing and generating print documentation. It has advanced functionality with a very steep learning curve.

Here’s an in-depth review of MadCap Flare by technical writer Tom Johnson.

Adobe RoboHelp

Using Adobe RoboHelp you will be creating topics in XHTML. Where RoboHelp previously supported desktop publishing, there is now more of a focus on web help, including mobile.

HelpNDoc

HelpNDoc also supports multiple output formats including HTML, CHM, PDF and Kindle ebook. It’s more affordable than some of the other popular HATs. It’s also less complex than other solutions, and the interface is more like a standard word processor such as Microsoft Word.

Check out this review of HelpNDoc from Techrepublic.

Software differences

One of the main differences between the two types of software is price. Knowledge base software typically comes a lot cheaper than your typical HAT. This is partly to do with the fact that HATs are more common in the enterprise, as they help fulfil enterprise requirements.

Knowledge base software is also usually sold as SaaS (Software as a Service), on a subscription basis. This makes it more affordable for smaller businesses. SaaS solutions tend to have more user-friendly interfaces, and liberally use the latest design principles for better User Experience.

A HAT may not be a web publishing solution in itself, but rather a content development tool. This means you will need to combine your HAT with another system if you want to have a website for your knowledge base. You could export your documentation from a HAT and import it into a knowledge base tool.

A HAT often needs to be combined with version control systems like Git and a CMS system to publish the documentation online, since the software is designed for internal use only.

Situations you would use them

Help Authoring Tools (HATs) are specialist software solutions that target technical writers with many years of training. These include options such as Madcap Flare, HelpNDoc, and Adobe RoboHelp.

You would traditionally find tools like these in the enterprise. Solutions like these are geared towards helping teams write their documentation collaboratively, and on a variety of mediums – think web pages, PDFs, printed manuals, and printed booklets. They have good support for images, which are often important in product manuals.

HATs are different from other types of software since they allow data to be input tagged in markup languages like XML. This means the content will be reused across mediums.

This capability requires more training and onboarding for new users – more than you would need to to use a standard knowledge base tool. Anyone who can use a web-based CMS will typically be able to learn to use knowledge base software quickly.

If all you want is a knowledge base, HATs won’t be appropriate.

Over to you!

Technical writers use both types of tools in different situations, but knowledge base software is geared more towards self-service or internal Knowledge Management. It provides a standalone website and CMS publishing system.

HATs are for technical authoring teams working on a variety of platforms, which may also include an online knowledge base.

Know the difference between the tools to invest in the right solution for your team. Teams looking to publish documentation on a website may opt for a knowledge base tool. Teams who need to develop content for a variety of platforms should consider a HAT.

You can learn more about our knowledge base software used by technical writers. Take it for free spin.


About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Community builder at KnowledgeOwl. Blogs. Copy. Documentation. Freelance content writer for creative and ethical companies. Contributing to open source and teaching technical tools.

Catherine blogs on her personal websites Away With Words and Awkward Writer. She runs the Write the Docs Northwest meetup group. 


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