Thursday, June 07, 2018

Planning a User Guide - Part 4/5 - Get Your Toolbox Together


Photo by Fleur Treurniet on Unsplash


In the previous post, I had discussed how to organize the team for creating your software's user manual. With the team ready, the next step is to select the tools.

Working with the right technical writing tools is as important in technical writing as it is in building software. The right tools will help you be more organized, productive, and accurate in your work. 

In software, we use an IDEs, testing tools, and version control tools to manage our work. In technical writing, at a bare minimum, we use a content authoring tool, an automated grammar checker, and visual tools to assist us in our work. 

I'll discuss various tools that are available in the market, link to comparisons, and share my opinion to help you make the right choice.

Help Authoring Tools

A Help Authoring Tool (HAT) offers several features that go beyond simple word processing software for writing technical documents. HATs support publishing the content in multiple formats, responsive design for different devices, indexing, single-sourcing, and context-sensitive features. 

Here are a few popular Help Authoring Tools:
  1. Adobe RoboHelp
  2. Author-it
  3. ComponentOne Doc-To-Help
  4. EC Software Help and Manual
  5. MadCap Flare
  6. Dr. Explain
Even though HATs are useful, I have yet to come across a small/mid-sized software company that uses them. It's because, at most small companies, it is the developers who write the first version of their technical manual. Using a HAT cuts on two sides: first the company has to pay a rather steep fee for using the HAT, and second, the developers will have to invest time in learning the software. Both money and time are at a premium in small organizations and their requirements are usually sufficiently fulfilled by MS Word or Google Docs.

It doesn't mean that HATs are not useful. If you feel that the features that a HAT offers will add significant value to your product, then I recommend that you read through the posts I have linked below to get an understanding of how they compare before making a purchase decision.


Automated Grammar Checker

An automated grammar checker is an invaluable tool for all writers. There are several automated grammar checkers on the market. Most have a freemium model where the free version at the very least corrects punctuation errors and basic grammatical mistakes and the paid version corrects more advanced grammatical issues and other issues related to sentence construction, readability, and plagiarism. Some software will also help you enhance your vocabulary - which is super awesome.

I personally use the free editions of both Grammarly and ProWritingAid.

Grammarly is great at detecting punctuation and basic grammatical mistakes. Also, Grammarly's free Chrome plugin totally rocks. It's a huge help when I compose emails in the browser or when I write blog posts. The only downside is that the plugin does not support Google Docs.  

ProWritingAid's free version which runs on a web interface is very intuitive and easy to use. It gives a great summary of the analyzed text, offers readability checks, checks for cliches, overused words, and several other features. Unfortunately, they include the browser plugin only in the paid version.

I suggest that you begin with the free versions of ProWritingAid and Grammarly. They may be all you need for working on a technical manual. 


Visual Tools

From the perspective of writing software user manuals, the most important visual tools are screen capturing software (to capture screenshots) and image editing software (to do minor edits to the screenshots). 

There are many free as well as paid screen capturing software available on the market. Here's a list of ten best screen capture software for 2018. I personally use the free version of Jing and am very happy with it.

Once you have the screenshots, you might want to do minor edits to highlight certain parts of the screen. Jing (and other screen capture software as well) will allow you to make highlights, circles, etc, but I don't like the quality much. I prefer to use a proper image editor. 

Online image editors work best since they do not require installation and some even have team features. Here's a list of great online image editors.