Writing a help manual can often be an intensely frustrating process. Everyone understands that the ultimate aim is to create a manual that helps your users solve their difficulties with your products and understand all their functions. The difficulty lies in working out how to get there. Most authors will have had the experience of staring at a blank piece of paper or screen, wondering how to start their latest book or article. When writing help documentation the main problem is deciding how to approach the subject.
Help Authoring Tools
Writing help documentation can be a tricky process. You need to learn to think like a product user not a developer. As the person responsible for writing the help documentation you may well have been involved with your product for a while, and have become very familiar with how it works. This is useful when writing help documentation but it can also be a disadvantage as you approach the product in a different way to those looking at it for the first time. What may be obvious to you may be a complete mystery to someone without your prior experience of the product, or knowledge of the design process.
Launching a new product takes both time and money, in any business both of these are generally in short supply. There are always pressures to reduce costs and get the product complete and ready for sale at the earliest opportunity.
Sometimes when looking for ways to keep costs to a minimum it can be tempting to think of a help manual as being an extra expense that should be produced as cheaply as possible. It is a common belief that most people should be able to work out how to use a product by themselves and if they do have any difficulties they can always call your help-desk for assistance.
This error in thinking may well be one of the biggest mistakes made by businesses today. No-one can deny that producing proper help documentation does involve some cost, but to consider the cost without looking at the savings incurred by your help manual is to look at only half the picture.
Writing help documentation can be a very long process. If you have a complicated product to explain it's not unusual for them to be several hundred help pages, and even a fairly simple product may need a manual of 50 or 100 topics.
It isn't just the length of help documents that can make them complicated to write. If your manual is going to be useful to your readers then you need to make sure every function of the product is included in the documentation, and that every aspect of the product is described accurately, and in a way that will be helpful to your end user.
With so much information to include, organizing your help documentation and completing it in a timely manner can be a serious challenge for any technical writer. Fortunately there is a way to write help documents faster, include everything you need to cover and still create a high quality professional document that can be produced in a variety of formats.
If you have never written help documentation before then it can seem a little scary. The end-users of your product are relying on you to help them understand every function of the product, and their continued use of the product rests on how successful you are in providing answers to their questions. Here is our 'idiots guide' to writing manuals and help documents. These tips will help you write help documents that cover all the details you need to include and that can be easily understood by your end-users.
What are the major product related costs for your business? Everyone knows that creating a new product costs money. There are costs involved in designing, testing, manufacturing the product, and also in getting the product to customers. All of these things need to happen if you are going to create a product which can be sold and produce an income that will allow the business to prosper.
If you have ever tried to write any type of documentation then you know that the process isn't as easy as you might think. Writing high quality help documents or manuals takes time and a lot of planning to make sure all the functions of the product are correctly explained. Many technical writers will have heard about help authoring tools, and some may even have thought about giving them a try, but been unclear exactly what the benefits are of using a help authoring tool compared to employing a standard word processing package. Here are three ways that a help authoring tool can help you to write better help documentation.
In short, HATs are software developed help authoring programs employed by technical writers to develop help documents, technical manuals and solutions.
As an example, take any product in today's competitive consumer marketplace world — be it an automobile, a home appliance, computer software or whatever product-type that requires operational instruction, functionality performance or assembly by the consumer — and you'll usually find an easily forgotten "behind-the-scenes" initiative by dedicated professionals that has led to the successful emergence of that product for sale.
Such is the case — and never to be lightly regarded — is the set of user help documentation that typically accompanies the product; with the ultimate goal of maximizing the usage and functionality experience for the buyer, as well as reducing support costs for the producer. Clear and effective user instructions can often make the ultimate difference in buyer appreciation, loyalty and acceptance as it can often "make or break" a product's success.
Creating product help documentation has many similarities with a typical student project. A student project will often need to:
- Discuss a topic in depth, covering each aspect of the topic thoroughly
- Break a subject down into clearly identifiable sections
- Include detailed references supporting the conclusion of the project
- Provide a complete index covering the topic under discussion
All of these tasks can be managed much better in help authoring software than in a conventional word processing package. If you write a student project in Microsoft Word then you have little choice but to start at the beginning of the subject and type the whole thing all the way through. That approach makes project writing tricky and very time consuming.
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.