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.
How can a help authoring tool help?
Many technical authors have discovered that the simplest way to reduce the drudgery of writing help documentation is to use a help authoring tool.
A Help Authoring Tool or HAT is a software program used by technical writers to create online help systems.
Help authoring tools simplify the writing process and allow authors to concentrate on the most important aspects of writing help documentation – making it easy to read, accurate, thorough, and generally useful to the end reader.
There are several different help authoring tools available to make the lives of technical authors easier. One popular help authoring tool is HelpNDoc which has some excellent features to reduce the time that it takes to write help documentation.
Some of the most useful features of HelpNDoc include:
- A simple, easy to use complete authoring environment
- The ability to generate multiple help formats from a single source
- The versatility to customize the look and feel of help documentation
- HelpNDoc is free for personal use, and evaluation purposes.
Let's take a look at each of these features of a good help authoring tool and see how they can help you to write better help documentation, save you time on all your writing tasks, and create high quality, unique documents that make it easy for the end user to find the information they need quickly.
A complete authoring environment
It is possible to write help documentation using Microsoft Word or another basic word processor but that is not a very convenient solution as a word processor lacks the dedicated functionality of a help authoring tool.
The beauty of a help authoring tool is that you get an excellent word processor combined with many other additional tools that simplify the creation of your documentation.
These tools often include a table of contents editor, a keywords editor, a topic editor, and a media elements library which all play their part in helping you build high quality help documentation without the hassle you may have experienced in the past.
Creation of multiple help formats from a single source
Multiple format creation is probably the single biggest advantage that a help authoring tool can provide. It is important for any product that the help documentation is available in at least a couple of different formats. If you design your help document in Microsoft Word then you will need to spend time formatting it for online display, or making it work as a .CHM file, or maybe you want it to be read as an EPUB book. Each of these formats has different rules, and it takes time to design your document to display correctly in each format. A good help authoring tool can take all of the hard work out of this process. As a technical author all you need to do is write your document in the authoring environment and then it will be automatically converted to as many different formats as you need.
A customized look and feel for your documents
One of the most common reasons that authors used to give for not using a standard help authoring tool is that all the completed documents would look similar and there was no way to customize the document to make it look unique. That argument certainly doesn't stand up in the case of most help authoring tools. These tools allow complete freedom to design help documentation the way you want.
A good help authoring tool should come with full source code for all design templates. Having access to the source code will allow you to completely customize the templates and generate online documentation or even an iPhone website that looks just the way you like it.
A media elements library stores all pictures, video clips, and other variables used in your document. You can include these elements throughout the document as needed. This library based system has an additional advantage if you should ever want to update any of the pictures in your document. If, for example, your company logo changes and you have included it at numerous points in your document, there is no need to work through the document changing every instance of the picture. Simply change the file in the library, and every copy of the picture or video in the document will be automatically updated to reflect the change. This ability to make fast changes to any help document sets a dedicated help authoring tool apart from any other way of creating a help document.
Software that is free
You might think that software that is this useful, and which saves you this much time would be expensive to buy. At least in the case of HelpNDoc, this isn't the case. This help authoring tool is free to use for personal and evaluation purposes. The free version is fully featured so all authors have access to everything they need to create great looking help documentation without needing to be concerned about the cost.
When these advantages are considered it becomes clear why so many technical authors choose to employ a help authoring tool to write all of their help documentation, manuals, and any other technical documents they may need. A help authoring tool is the right choice to simplify all technical writing tasks.