In this blog post, you will find a quick step-by-step introduction into creating user manuals. This article will be useful for technical writers who are at the beginning of their professional journey and for experienced specialists as we will touch upon a very important question — help authoring tools.Moving to a specialized tool is a pressing matter a lot of documentation teams are facing, so, keep reading, to learn more.
Writing a user manual starts with some preparation. There are basically two main things to study here: the subject of the user manual and the target audience. These two go hand in hand.
To be able to create clear and helpful user manuals, technical writers need to study the subject with great attention to details. With this learning process comes the understanding of the target audience.
For whom you are creating a user manual is the key moment, so let’s take a closer look. You should not just know your audience, you must be able to adapt documentation. Although the basic principles of technical documentation remain the same — you need to explain your subject in the most concise, neutral and structured manner — different groups of readers require a different approach.
So, you’ll have to figure out the level of knowledge of your target audience on the subject in question. When creating documentation for professionals, you need to really go in depth. If you are writing for novice users, make sure to cover all the key moments and leave out more complicated stuff that a novice reader won’t need and will just find confusing.
Let’s take IKEA as an example of a novice user manual. IKEA furniture is bought and assembled all over the world by regular people, only a few of them are professional furniture assemblers. The IKEA technical writers have basically created their own language to communicate with people on a topic their clients might be completely ignorant. The IKEA documentation specialists needed to develop a user manual that would be understood by representatives of any race and almost any age. How’s that for a task? This is a great example of working with the target audience.
Planning is very important. Poor planning can cause implementation delays or, sometimes, due to sloppy planning the whole project requires re-doing. We certainly wouldn’t want that.
So, what’s the best approach here? A documentation plan! In short, a documentation plan is a document containing all the necessary information for reference when working on a user manual, such as: general information about the project, tools used, timeframes, workflow details, etc.
The idea behind such a plan being — all the people involved in the project will have access to all the info they might need. First and foremost, this approach provides consistency and, definitely, saves time.
The planning part also includes structuring the future help topics. It is very important to organize everything into a system prior to actual writing. Some documentation projects include hundreds of topics. Just imagine the pain of restructuring the whole thing later!
At this stage, the actual technical writing is done. How can one improve this process? In the quite recent past, technical writers worked with basic text editors, and some companies still do.
This can be easily explained — when you have a steady workflow, you’ve been using for years, you might be reluctant to change it. But, the thing is, the market of tech writing tools has been around for a while now and has much to offer.
Help authoring tools are tailored specifically for technical writers’ need. They are meant to make the technical writing process more efficient and enjoyable.
The most helpful HAT features would be:
- Single sourcing techniques that allow you to create different outputs of the same documentation using conditional content, variables, etc.
- Teamwork and workflow options (including roles, topic completion statuses, etc.)
- Pre-made elements (warning and information boxes, quick navigation elements)
- Numerous import/export formats (this will make the initial process of migrating to a help authoring tool easier, as well)
- Ready-to-use templates. In tools, such as ClickHelp, these templates are created with design trends and tech writing needs in mind. Check out this post on design tips for online documentation and see for yourself.
We’ve mentioned just a few features you might find useful for your documentation project. In reality, online documentation tools have a lot more to offer.
So, these are the main phases of an average documentation authoring process. It is highly important to think every project through thoroughly to receive great results. Be consistent and never underestimate planning. To become more efficient at creating user manuals try using help authoring tools.
We hope that this article will help you to get a clearer understanding of how help authoring is done and how you can take it to the next level.
Good Luck with your technical writing career!