There is only one rule for picking the best format for publishing help manuals: pick the format that makes the manual easily accessible for users when they need it and how they need it.
Interestingly, product users have access to several devices, software and digital content including web browsers, PDF, Microsoft Word and smart devices such as smartphones, tablets, Kindle, iPads, Macs... The list is almost endless. This is why writing a quality help manual may be the best investment your business make.
But with such a long list, what’s the best format for publishing your help manual? Let's review some of them.
Seven help formats to consider
1. Hard copy
Manufacturers of hardware products and appliances such as television sets, toys, vehicles, washing machines, power tools, office equipment, furniture etc. often publish a hard copy of their help manuals. These hard copies are often printed in paper format so users can use the manual without any software or device and refer to it easily whenever they have to. Sometimes, the PDF versions of these help manuals are available on the manufacturer’s website so users can print them any time if the hard copy is missing.
In appearance, WebHelp is similar to HTML Help, but it is viewed on a web-browser and compatible with all platforms including Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, Unix... WebHelp is primarily designed for use on the web and the intranet.
If you publish your help manual on a WebHelp format, you can update it any time without having to republish a physical manual. Your product users will always know they’re viewing the latest version of your help manual without the need to contact customer support. This is one good reason for you to use a help authoring tool that allows you to generate documentation in multi-format so you can slash your customer support costs.
3. HTML Help
This help file is Microsoft’s version of how electronic documentation should be published. Primarily, HTML help is the electronic help format for Windows application. If you’ve built an application that is compatible with Windows, you’ll have to consider publishing your help manual as HTML Help and it will be displayed by the HTML Help Viewer. With that, you can pack your entire help file into one CHM file.
4. PDF and MS Word
You can publish your help manuals on a PDF and Word format so you can distribute them easily via email or the web. The PDF file can be displayed on any computer, smartphone or tablet with a PDF reader. Also, the Word file can be displayed on a computer, smartphone or tablet with a Microsoft Word software. If you publish your help manuals on a PDF or Word format, your product users will have the choice to print any of these files easily or download them.
5. ePub eBook
The popularity of smart devices is constantly growing with no chance of slowing down anytime soon. As such, you shouldn’t limit access to your help manuals to only a few options. You can publish your help manual in ePub eBook format so your product users who use Kobo eReader, Apple iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch), Nook... can access the file easily. You should consider learning more about how to publish your help manuals for the vast majority of eReaders.
You can use video help manuals to supplement any other help file format you’ve published. A simple and short video tutorial can make a complicated process very easy to understand and remember. You can upload your videos to popular video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo where users can find them.
7. Embedded help files
You can embed a help file directly into your product so users can find and use them easily exactly when they need them. If you pick this option, your end users wouldn’t have to open any window, browser or printed files to have access to help content.
If your product is a software, all the information users need will be available in the workspace and they often include pop-up tooltips, task wizards, or explanatory side panels. But if your product is a hardware, like a washing machine, it can be printed on the product.
How to pick the right format?
So which format is right for you? Whichever helps your users the most. So you should publish your help manuals in file formats that reflect the nature of its content, the nature of your product and what users may likely use them for. If your product is a mobile app that users download and install, your best bet is to provide a mobile friendly web based version which they can browse to from their mobile devices. Also, you shouldn’t waste your effort creating content for ePub eBook when a short video tutorial can demonstrate how to use your product features easily.