Helpify 1.5: Help Us Help You Help Users

by William Van Hecke on December 21, 2009

Hello! It's kind of strange to think that it's been over a year since I first posted Helpify. If you haven't met it, Helpify is a tool for Mac developers to generate Apple Help Books for their software. We use it here, of course, and it has seen a bit of popularity outside of Omni too.

Version 1.5 incorporates a lot of improvements that were suggested (or written!) by kind folks in the Mac community. This time around, Daniel Jalkut of Red Sweater Software was especially helpful in making sure our indexing process works equally well on Snow Leopard and earlier versions of Mac OS X.

And thanks to Automator, Helpify is now an applet, not just a command-line script. You can drop your source outline right on it. Other new niceties include variables stored inside the source outline instead of inside the script, and better handling of anchors that appear at the top of a page.

I hope you find this new version of Helpify useful. Please let us know what you think!

Update: Version 1.5.1 fixes a problem parsing the special Variables section. Thanks to John Alexander for pointing it out.

Update: Version 1.5.2 fixes a problem with setting up the Box style and with a bogus link to a Variables page on the last page. Thanks to Nicholas Riley.

Download Helpify 1.5.2

OmniGraffle and Photoshop: One Great Taste and One Acceptable Taste that Taste Great Together

by William Van Hecke on December 15, 2009

Did you know that Photoshop files can be dragged straight into OmniGraffle documents? It's super true! I've been taking this for granted, but it was a lovely surprise when I tried it on a whim and it, yeah, “just worked”.

That one discovery pretty drastically improved my interface design workflow. Before that, having to export to PNG for every change to any graphic in a mockup meant that I didn't go into Photoshop very often, and I used OmniGraffle to create graphics whenever I could get away with it. Well, OmniGraffle is a superb diagramming app, and it can even hold its own for a lot of graphics work, but it's not Photoshop. Sometimes you just need those layer styles, shape layers, and masks.

Here's how I've been doing it:

  • Working on a mockup in OmniGraffle, realize I need a graphic.
  • Switch to Photoshop, create the graphic, and save the file.
  • Click and hold on the document icon in the Photoshop window's title bar, then drag it to the OmniGraffle canvas.
  • Take advantage of OmniGraffle's guides, alignment controls, grouping, tables, and other conveniences to arrange things just right.
  • If the graphic needs to change, make the adjustments in Photoshop and save again.
  • Just drag the new version right on top of the existing object on the OmniGraffle canvas to replace it.

The screenshot is an actual in-development inspector design for a future Omni product! (With all of its text replaced by neologisms from Finnegans Wake, of course.)

Photoshop to OmniGraffle

Helpify, the Omni Help Emitter

by William Van Hecke on October 2, 2008

Hello, friends. One of my jobs here at Omni is creating our documentation, including onscreen help in the Apple Help Book format. Over the years I have been building a Python tool that turns specially-formatted OmniOutliner 3 files into proper help books, which can then be dropped into an app. This is pretty useful for “single-sourcing” our help and manuals. If you, too, would like to author your help in OmniOutliner, with automatic formatting, indexing, and navigation, you may want to try it out.


The included outline acts as documentation and as a starting template. If you have any feedback, or you’d like to help improve my decidedly un-engineer-like code, please let me know at helpify at omni group dot com.

Update: Version 1.1, uploaded October 31, 2008, includes code cleanup, a company web site variable, and the ability to use Helpify as a module for other Python scripts. Many thanks go to Matteo Rattotti of Shiny Frog for his feedback and patience.

Update: Version 1.2, uploaded November 18, 2008, includes a bit more cleanup and much better handling of Unicode throughout the source outline. Thanks to Markus Müller of MindNode for his feedback and patience.

Update: Version 1.5 was uploaded December 21, 2009. See the new blog post for details!


OmniGraffle for Bureaucracy

by William Van Hecke on March 9, 2007

Good day.

It took me a while to realize this, but almost every time I need to put some kind of stuff on a page, and it makes a difference where on the page that stuff is, OmniGraffle ends up being the best tool for the job.

Let me 'splain: OmniGraffle might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you need to fill out some official forms for the U.S. Government. Or, say, some character sheets for your weekend Dungeons & Dragons session. But it should be. Check this out:

  • Grab an electronic version of the form you need to fill out. Scan it if you have to, but most official forms are available as PDFs these days. Some of them even claim to be fillable, but I've never gotten them to work properly in Preview or Acrobat.
  • Copy each page from the document (in Preview) and paste it onto a fresh OmniGraffle canvas.
  • For each canvas, lock the layer that has the form on it, and create a new layer for your information.
  • Make text objects all over the canvas to fill in each blank. Once you have a text object you like, you can Option-drag it or paste it all over and just replace the text.


Why this is so much handier than filling out forms by hand:

  • You can use the alignment inspector and smart guides to make sure everything is lined up just right and perfectly legible.
  • If some of the boxes are really tiny, you can play around with the font to get everything to fit in there just right.
  • Filling out the same info over and over is easy: just copy and paste the existing text objects with the info you need.
  • Once you've saved the file, you automatically have a backup copy for reference or revision.
  • You can make an OmniGraffle template that has the right paper size, two layers per canvas, and a nice grid for keeping things orderly.

When I was going through the process to get someone a visa to live in the USA, this technique saved me heaps of time and stress. And now I have backups of every form (there are lots of forms involved).

Have you found any weird or unexpected uses for Omni apps? Maybe next time I'll tell you about how I'm using OmniGraffle as a level editor for a video game I'm working on…

OmniPlan 1.1 beta 4

by William Van Hecke on March 8, 2007

This beta release contains plenty of stability, import/export, printing, and AppleScript support improvements. We have completed the AppleScript changes that were planned for 1.1, so if you run into any problems there, be sure to let us know.

Please keep in mind that this release is still under development. Your feedback will help us improve the software, and we apologize if it crashes, corrupts your files, steps on the piano keys at night, or otherwise misbehaves. A more stable release is also available.

As always, please let us know if you have any questions or comments. You can contact us directly via our support page or by using the Send Feedback command in OmniPlan's Help menu.

Download and enjoy.