CFUG

Having help material is great, but have you considered the way you’re distributing help to your users?

Are you making the best of the content you’ve invested in?

Are your users happy with the way it’s distributed?

When we write a user guide, we also suggest the most appropriate distribution method(s) for that user guide. In fact, the technical content we write can be split, varied, pruned, recycled and reshuffled over a variety of formats for a range of purposes.

Here a few of the options we provide. Note that all of these output formats are available as part of our manual writing service, and you can combine several formats if you need to. The only cost involved is the cost of creating the template, which is normally a one-off task.

User Guides & Manuals: the Common Formats

Most clients have fairly straightforward requirements for their user manuals. Through habit or necessity, their customers prefer a certain format, and they’re happy to stick with it. I’ll quickly run through the ones we’re commonly asked to produce.

Printed Manuals and User Guides

Help documentation is normally supplied to the client as a PDF, or sometimes a Word document. The client can print, bind and distribute this on paper. We brand the cover, headers and footers to match the company’s branding, and we version each release to match the product release itself.

Printed manuals are still the most popular option for user documentation, but as your manual grows, you may find it’s not economical to rely solely on print.

Word and PDF User Guides

Word and PDF are used for print and distribution via email or the web. We very rarely actually write in Word, but we can easily output our documentation to Word or PDF if the client requires it.

Of the two, we normally recommend PDF for electronic distribution. Word can cause unexpected layout problems, and it’s sometimes infuriatingly difficult to maintain.

HTML Help

Anyone who has looked up the help documentation in a Windows application will have come across HTML Help. (You’ll almost certainly have used one: the first time you open a HTML Help file, you normally have to wait for an index to be compiled for search.)

HTML Help is Microsoft’s own take on an output format for electronic documentation. It’s still used by some businesses, but HTML Help is now 15 years old as a format. We normally recommend a more modern alternative for a manual where possible. (If anything, it just doesn’t look very nice.)

WebHelp

WebHelp looks similar to HTML Help but is viewed using a web browser, making it a popular, versatile alternative. Clients can maintain, update and develop WebHelp without having to re-release physical manuals, and their customers know they’re always looking at the latest version, which is a real bonus.

The traditional WebHelp output is a framed layout; this was the best way of presenting the content when the format was introduced. Naturally, we try to stay away from frames on the web now, so we have upgraded all of our clients’ WebHelp manuals to HTML 5 help (see below) and would not recommend creating new manuals in old-fashioned WebHelp format if possible.

New, and Less Common, Manual Formats

Now, some of the more modern ways to produce user help. All of these formats are really impressive and offer features that make the content more accessible.

WebHelp Mobile, WebHelp Plus and HTML 5 Help

Modern WebHelp techniques allow us to step away from the old fashioned HTML Help and WebHelp formats. These formats are much more popular with users – partly because they’re so user friendly, and partly because they look really good.

WebHelp Plus offers better search and speedier performance on IIS, whereas HTML 5 Help (aka ‘WebHelp 2.0’) gives us more dynamic layout controls. HTML 5 Help doesn’t have any frames, and that makes it better for SEO. The topic links are also more descriptive, and we can generate site maps for better Google indexing.

You’ll need to ensure your users’ browsers are new enough to handle HTML 5, though. In some organisations, the browsers in use can be more than five years old. Having said that, it’s worth pushing for HTML 5 Help where possible, purely for accessibility; remember, we can quickly publish both if necessary.

E-Book User Manuals

Some clients are moving towards publishing help material in e-book format, and it’s something we are really enjoying experimenting with.

As part of our user manual writing service, we can publish any online or print manual to ePUB format, complete with the proper indexing, formatting and search. Text content published this way can be re-sized and will automatically re-flow by itself, maintaining a neat structure on-screen. Even better, ePUB files are self-contained, read-only and incredibly compact.

We’re currently testing user manuals on iPads, Macs, PCs Android tablets, the Kindle and the Nook to see how each one performs and how well they handle ePUB user guides. So far, the results have been great.

Mobile Help

WebHelp Mobile is, as you’d expect, a format we output for smartphones and tablets. Publishing in this format can be really useful if your customers work away from the office, or if the products you manufacture tend to be used in the field – all your employee needs is suitable smartphone and an internet connection.

We can even publish mobile help along with an Apple Touch icon; the user then adds the icon to their home screen for quick access, just like an app.

We’re hoping to develop more mobile help for software like apps, where large PDF or Word manuals are inappropriate.

More About Our Manual Writing Service

Need more information? We’re happy to advise you on your user guide requirements, help you choose an output format and create the content for your next manual. Take a look at our Portfolio, or just contact us for a chat.

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Claire Broadley is a freelance technical blogger for Red Robot Media. Hire Claire to write your business blog or technical user guides.