Many authors of help manuals have discovered that help authoring tools or HAT software programs are a great way to quickly and easily write manuals, and other help documents. Not so many people stop and think about the way using HAT software programs actually benefits everyone else, including the product manufacturer paying for the manual, and the end user of the product.
Microsoft Word is a great piece of software. It allows users to quickly and easily write anything from a school report to business letter. The biggest advantage which Microsoft Word has is user-familiarity, it is a software which most of us have grown up with using it both at school and in the office. For many people it is still the natural choice when they need to write anything in a business environment. And for most purposes Microsoft Word is ideal, but there are some applications including writing product documentation for which it is not so well suited.
There are many reasons why Microsoft Word is not the right tool to help you write product documentation, here are just five of them.
Almost everyone has at least one help related horror story to tell. Whether it is about trying to understand a product when the help manual has been written in such poor English that it is unintelligible, or a product that has shipped with a manual for entirely the wrong model. Perhaps the story is about one of those manuals that are packed so full of details that there is too much information and it becomes almost impossible to find the answer you need quickly. There are many ways that help manuals can go wrong but in general they can usually be broken down into two main areas...
Writing a help manual can often be an intensely frustrating process. Everyone understands that the ultimate aim is to create a manual that helps your users solve their difficulties with your products and understand all their functions. The difficulty lies in working out how to get there. Most authors will have had the experience of staring at a blank piece of paper or screen, wondering how to start their latest book or article. When writing help documentation the main problem is deciding how to approach the subject.
Writing help documentation can be a tricky process. You need to learn to think like a product user not a developer. As the person responsible for writing the help documentation you may well have been involved with your product for a while, and have become very familiar with how it works. This is useful when writing help documentation but it can also be a disadvantage as you approach the product in a different way to those looking at it for the first time. What may be obvious to you may be a complete mystery to someone without your prior experience of the product, or knowledge of the design process.
Launching a new product takes both time and money, in any business both of these are generally in short supply. There are always pressures to reduce costs and get the product complete and ready for sale at the earliest opportunity.
Sometimes when looking for ways to keep costs to a minimum it can be tempting to think of a help manual as being an extra expense that should be produced as cheaply as possible. It is a common belief that most people should be able to work out how to use a product by themselves and if they do have any difficulties they can always call your help-desk for assistance.
This error in thinking may well be one of the biggest mistakes made by businesses today. No-one can deny that producing proper help documentation does involve some cost, but to consider the cost without looking at the savings incurred by your help manual is to look at only half the picture.
Writing help documentation can be a very long process. If you have a complicated product to explain it's not unusual for them to be several hundred help pages, and even a fairly simple product may need a manual of 50 or 100 topics.
It isn't just the length of help documents that can make them complicated to write. If your manual is going to be useful to your readers then you need to make sure every function of the product is included in the documentation, and that every aspect of the product is described accurately, and in a way that will be helpful to your end user.
With so much information to include, organizing your help documentation and completing it in a timely manner can be a serious challenge for any technical writer. Fortunately there is a way to write help documents faster, include everything you need to cover and still create a high quality professional document that can be produced in a variety of formats.
Everyone understands the importance of accurate, up-to-date help documentation. The only way to get the best out of any product is to read the manual and find out how to use every function properly. The difficulty faced by the developers of many products is choosing which formats they should produce their help documentation in. It used to be the case that a printed manual was considered sufficient for most products. In recent years the printed manual has frequently been replaced by either a PDF or on-line version, but are these really the best options available?
If you have never written help documentation before then it can seem a little scary. The end-users of your product are relying on you to help them understand every function of the product, and their continued use of the product rests on how successful you are in providing answers to their questions. Here is our 'idiots guide' to writing manuals and help documents. These tips will help you write help documents that cover all the details you need to include and that can be easily understood by your end-users.
What are the major product related costs for your business? Everyone knows that creating a new product costs money. There are costs involved in designing, testing, manufacturing the product, and also in getting the product to customers. All of these things need to happen if you are going to create a product which can be sold and produce an income that will allow the business to prosper.