Let's face it, help documentation today has a terrible image. Almost everyone you talk to about it has a bad impression of help manuals. There are lots of different reasons for this, some of the most common are:
- It doesn't answer the questions you have
- You can't find the answer even though you know it's in there somewhere
- The manual is hard to navigate
- The documentation is out of date
- The documentation doesn't exist yet
With problems like these it's no surprise that many people don't bother reading help documents, they prefer to try and work the answer out for themselves, or simply look for a product which is easier to understand. Nobody wants to spend their time working through a long boring manual that is probably not going to answer their questions anyway.
It doesn't have to be this way! It really is possible to have help documentation that is easy to navigate and that answers end-users' questions quickly and correctly.
Understanding your customers’ needs
For anyone writing help documentations the problems usually start because they don't approach the document in the right way. Often those in charge of producing the documentation are the same ones who have spent months developing the product. The temptation is to assume that everyone using your product has the same level of knowledge as you, and wishes to use the product in the way you expect.
We have to accept that this isn't the case. Every one of your product users will come to the product with a different level of knowledge, and probably slightly different expectations about what your product can do, and how they want to use it. Your help documentation has to take each of those people on a journey from where they are, through each of the functions of your product. By the time they reach the end of the documentation they should be able to fully understand every function of the product that they need to use without having had to struggle through pages of information on functions that they will never need to use.
Organisation is key
One of the biggest difficulties for anyone thinking about writing a help manual is knowing how to organize the material. They may know everything possible about the product but unless they know how to arrange that material in a helpful way it's not going to benefit anyone. One piece of software which can be very helpful is a help authoring tool. HATs can assist with arranging and formatting material for your help and manuals. Using features like the topic editor, and media library can help to ensure that each topic you need to write about is covered thoroughly, and that all the pictures and other media elements you need to use are in place to make the manual easy to understand.
Using a help authoring tool is especially useful when it is time to update your help documentation. Instead of having to rewrite sections of the manual and then painstakingly reformat the whole document to reflect the changes, you only need to click a few buttons and the manual is updated and can be output in a wide range of formats, including PDF, ePub or Qt Help. It is even possible to generate a complete HTML version of your help documentation that can be used as an online help file.
Creating help documentation that is well organized, looks great, and actually answers your customers questions is a great way to ensure that no-one will ever call your help manuals boring again.