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 makes. But with such a long list, what’s the best format for publishing your help manual? Let’s review some of them.
Almost everyone has at least one help related horror story to tell. Whether it is about trying to understand a product when the help manual has been written in such poor English that it is unintelligible, or a product that has shipped with a manual for entirely the wrong model. Perhaps the story is about one of those manuals that are packed so full of details that there is too much information and it becomes almost impossible to find the answer you need quickly. There are many ways that help manuals can go wrong but in general they can usually be broken down into two main areas:
The manual is out of date or has the wrong information
The manual is poorly written or is difficult to navigate
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.
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.
Everyone understands the importance of accurate, up-to-date help documentation. The only way to get the best out of any product is to read the manual and find out how to use every function properly. The difficulty faced by the developers of many products is choosing which formats they should produce their help documentation in. It used to be the case that a printed manual was considered sufficient for most products. In recent years the printed manual has frequently been replaced by either a PDF or on-line version, but are these really the best options available?
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.