The times when technical writers were using Notepad or MS Word to create user manuals are over. Now, we have a big and dynamic market of technical writing tools. But, the more solutions emerge — the more difficult it is to find the one that suits best. Or, even to figure out the right parameters to consider.
As we have a vast experience in this field, we decided to create this article to help you out a bit. So, here are the key parameters to be mindful of when choosing a technical writing tool.
Teamwork-related features are important even when we are talking about really small documentation teams. If there’s collaboration there has to be some workflow established. Otherwise, it will be a mess. We wouldn’t call it a disaster, if the team is really small, but it would be still a disturbing and time consuming kind of situation.
So, a good technical writing tool should have such teamwork features as: user roles, email notifications, document statuses and a version history. And, just in case you are struggling to achieve better collaboration within your team, you can also check out our blog post on How To Optimize Documentation Team Workflow
If you have searched through the market of help authoring tools already, then you are aware of the following ratio: most applications are made for Windows platforms. As far as Linux and MacOS are concerned, you’ve got not that many options to choose from. Of course, you might be lucky enough to stumble upon a great help authoring solution that will work on the desired platform, but, actually, there’s an easier way — try searching among web-based/browser-based tools.
Using such a tool has several benefits. First, it solves the platform dilemma once and for all. Second, browser-based tools can be easily accessed from anywhere in the world. All you need is the Internet connection and a device to run a browser on.
Cost of Ownership
Another important point here — the ownership cost. To be able to calculate it, you need to keep a lot of factors in mind.
Try figuring out how much the help authoring tool is going to cost you for the next 3–5 years. Aside from the license/subscription cost, don’t forget about these things: training sessions, technical support, services, documentation hosting (if this is a web version), licenses for your OS and other soft you might possibly need to work with the technical writing tool (for example, some systems require MS Word to create PDFs), content backup systems, etc. For many small businesses the cost factor can be a deal breaker. So, it is highly important to be able to predict the expenses beforehand.
Import and Export
Yet another significant thing to consider. Here’s the deal — when you move to a new technical writing tool, most likely, you already have some ready documentation projects, or projects your team is still working on. And, you are going to need to transfer them to this new tool. If that’s the case, make sure that the tool you’ve chosen supports your existing documentation format as an import possibility.
The list of export formats is equally important. Check out the options the help authoring tool of choice provides, specifically, where you can export your documentation to, and what branding options are available. As far as branding is concerned, you might want to ensure you can get your output look much like your company website or previous documentation versions (your company logo, styles, colors, etc.).
Productivity Tools and Features
These are basically the features that make technical documentation creation and maintenance easier. To figure this one out, you will need to get a trial and work with the tool for a while. We will provide you with an example list of some productivity features that the ClickHelp online documentation tool has to offer: content reuse (in ClickHelp, it can be done with the help of snippets), centralized styling capabilities (via CSS), ready project templates, content variables, conditional content, a table of contents. Such functionality influences the content creation process a lot, making it more efficient and productive.
We recommend paying special attention to the content editor of a help authoring tool. Of course, there are many specific tech writing features that are going to be important to you. But, the content editor is where the work is mostly done. This is something that you will use on a daily basis. We won’t get into much detail here, as this is mostly a question of personal preferences. Just don’t forget to test it 🙂
Reporting and Analytics
This functionality is mostly required for bigger technical writing teams to be able to see the whole picture — how your documentation project is doing and how each team member is contributing. And, of course, figure out what can be improved in the work process.
Reports in documentation tools can be of various kinds. For example, ClickHelp features a project readiness chart, the ability to sort out topics by authors and statuses or using custom filters, and other reports.
Also, this tool has Google Analytics integration. You can use it for different purposes, for example, to track the most viewed help topics to make sure that these are the first to be updated and improved in the future.
If you are using or plan on using other services to work with technical documentation, check out what integration options are available for the technical writing tool. Some of the most common options are: integrated solutions for commenting, online chats with users, support tools like Zendesk, etc.
Security and Permissions
Different team members can have different permissions. For example, not all team members should have the rights to make major changes like deleting a documentation project or publishing its new version.
If you have people with a reviewer role, quite often, they don’t have permissions to change content. All reviewers can do is leave comments as they are not necessarily professional technical writers.
This leads to two more features to look for in a technical writing tool:
- Is there the possibility of setting up permissions for different roles? What kind of restrictions can be set?
- Does the tool have any functionality for reviewing help topics?
The review process is very important for creating quality documentation. Help topics can be reviewed by fellow tech writers, SME, translators. So, this functionality should be on your checklist, also.
Having your user manuals available online is a great idea. Most companies are moving in this direction now as this approach has a lot of advantages. Marketing benefits a lot from documentation being online by means of SEOand additional content. This helps technical support teams, too. A lot of cases get deflected via online documentation. So, support team workload can decrease drastically. Your clients will also be more than happy to find answers this easily. With online user manuals, they will be able to use Google to get their questions answered.
To reap the benefits of having your technical documentation available online, you need to be aware of several things. These are the features to look for in a help authoring tool:
- Searchability — to be available for search, your content must be indexed by search engines.
- Branding — your online documentation should look similar to your website, so the clients will have the right associations instantaneously.
- Restricted Access — you might want to have some topics available only for certain users. This means you need the Restricted Access functionality in your tool.
No documentation team is the same. Each workflow requires individual approach. The good news is — most of the modern technical writing tools have a great variety of features in store. So, your task is to find a tool with the perfect combination of desired features. We have covered a lot of functionality in this article, so, now, you can create your own customized checklist and find just the tool for you.