You’ve designed a near perfect product or built a great software. And then you hired some of the best technical writers to write a user-friendly help manual to solve usability problems. You want your product users to start enjoying the product from the first minute. The technical writers did a great a job, and your user experience team confirmed that. But after launching your product or releasing an update, you seem to be spending a lot more on customer support. In many cases, the answers users are looking for are right inside the user manual. So now you’re asking the same question many manufacturers and developers have been asking. Do product users ever read help manuals?
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…).
Many authors of help manuals have discovered that help authoring tools or HAT software programs are a great way to quickly and easily write manuals, and other help documents. Not so many people stop and think about the way using HAT software programs actually benefits everyone else, including the product manufacturer paying for the manual, and the end user of the product.
Microsoft Word is a great piece of software. It allows users to quickly and easily write anything from a school report to business letter. The biggest advantage which Microsoft Word has is user-familiarity, it is a software which most of us have grown up with using it both at school and in the office. For many people it is still the natural choice when they need to write anything in a business environment. And for most purposes Microsoft Word is ideal, but there are some applications including writing product documentation for which it is not so well suited. There are many reasons why Microsoft Word is not the right tool to help you write product documentation, here are just five of them.
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.