5 mistakes to avoid when writing help documentation

How often have you spent ages searching a help file for something that you know should be there, but you just can't find? Help documentation is usually the first place that we look when we don't know how something is supposed to work. If the information in the help file is not clear, or even worse misleading then we are just going to end up frustrated, and maybe even rejecting the product for something easier to understand.

Benefits of using help authoring software for student projects

Creating product help documentation has many similarities with a typical student project. A student project will often need to:

  • Discuss a topic in depth, covering each aspect of the topic thoroughly
  • Break a subject down into clearly identifiable sections
  • Include detailed references supporting the conclusion of the project
  • Provide a complete index covering the topic under discussion

All of these tasks can be managed much better in help authoring software than in a conventional word processing package. If you write a student project in Microsoft Word then you have little choice but to start at the beginning of the subject and type the whole thing all the way through. That approach makes project writing tricky and very time consuming.

What is a Help Authoring tool?

Writing help documentation is hard work, a technical author needs to clearly explain every function of the product. The documentation needs to be written for a wide range of product users, not all of whom will be approaching the product with the same level of technical expertise or expectations.
Despite these consideration, in many cases technical authors find that writing the help documentation is the easy part of the process. Once they have written down everything they need to say to cover the topic properly they then need to format it so that it is accessible and easy to read in a variety of formats. Formats that might be required include PDF, Word, online HTML, perhaps HLP or CHM as well. The whole formatting process can be very time consuming when what most technical authors really want is to concentrate on writing really good help documentation and not have to spend ages worrying about how their pages display on different devices.
When the documentation is finally completed that is often still not the end of the process as every time the product is revised the documentation has to be changed to reflect the new or updated features.