Picking the right format to publish your help files can be tricky, especially if you’re creating your first help manual and you want to avoid the biggest mistakes first time help manual authors make. The right format determines if your users have access to your help files exactly how and when they need it.
If you’re using a help authoring tool (and you should because they make it easier to write better help documents in half the time), publishing in multiple formats should be no trouble at all.
The big question we’re answering today is, should you publish a print manual (hard copy), or a screen manual (PDF, CHM, Web based HTML, eBook format...).
It is easy to assume that print manuals are outdated or not so important. But print manuals are still very relevant especially for hardware products such as washing machines, automobiles, electrical appliances, office equipment, television sets, toys, furniture and several others.
These products manufacturers often publish their help manuals in a printed format so users wouldn’t need an extra device to access their manuals. Also, unlike screen manuals that require electricity-powered devices or battery-powered devices like a PC or a smartphone, printed manuals don’t run on batteries and can never run out of power.
Some product users are more familiar with reading printed materials. So they find it easier to read hand-held printed user guides that can be opened on a flat surface. Also, some users prefer printed manuals because they can write short notes or indicate marks on them while reading. Even more, if you’re traveling to a remote area with poor Internet access, having a print manual is your best bet. Imagine the troubles you’d have searching for a signal on your phone so you could access the help manual for your car while out camping.
Screen help manuals are manuals or user guides that users can access on a PC or mobile device like smartphones and tablets. This is a good reason why you should create ePub and Kindle versions of your help files. One key advantage of screen manuals over printed manuals is the use of tutorial videos. Since it’s easier to learn quicker visually, some manufacturers often create tutorial videos to demonstrate how to use their product features.
Also, when help manuals go wrong, screen manuals such as web based help manuals are easy to update. Manufacturers can update one or more sections of their manuals to address a specific problem based on customer support recommendation. They can easily add in new sections without having to reprint everything. Further, online manuals are available for all users regardless of their location as long as they have devices that can access the Internet. Print manuals are cumbersome to carry around at the best of times, so screen manuals serve mobile products better.
Even more, online manuals are more effective for cross-referencing through hyperlinks. Users can easily find related answers or more information on what they’re looking for. Unlike print manuals, screen manuals can be retrieved easily using keywords in the help manuals or the product name. Screen manuals do not take up space like print manuals and cannot be damaged easily.
Print or Screen – what's the right format to publish your help manual?
We made a quick cheatsheet to help you figure out which kind of help manual you need.
|Product type||Print or screen|
|Physical product, such as watches||Both|
|Download only, such as mobile apps||Screen only|
|Mobile products, such as cameras||Usually screen, but sometimes print can help|
|Stationary products, such as photocopy machines||Usually print, but sometimes screen can help|
While the ideal choice depends on the type of product you’re selling, most products can benefit from both types. With the right help authoring tool you can create just one help manual and publish it online and in print. Depending on the type of product the manual was made for, a printed manual can be delivered with the product while an online version is available for download on a video, Word or PDF format. That way, product users have choice: those who prefer reading electronic content can read the online version, while those who prefer a hand-held manual can read the hard copy.