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.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Planning a User Guide - Part 3/5 - Co-ordinate the Team

Photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

This is the third post in a series of five posts on how to plan a user guide. In the first post, I wrote about how to conduct an audience analysis and the second post discussed how to define the overall scope of the manual. Once the overall scope of the user guide is defined, the next step is to coordinate the team that will work on creating the manual.

A typical team will consist of the following roles. Many of these roles will be fulfilled by freelancers since they are one-off or intermittent work engagements. At the end of the article, I have provided a list of websites where you can find good freelancers.

Creative Artist

You'll need to work with a creative artist to design the cover page and any other images for the user guide. Most small to mid-sized companies don't have a dedicated creative artist on their rolls. But that's not a problem. There are several freelancing websites where you can work with great creative artists on a gig basis.

Photographer

If your software interfaces with machinery or other equipment, then you'll need a good photographer to shoot images of the machinery to include in the user manual. Your local yellow pages or a web search will help you locate a good photographer.

Legal Expert

A legal expert can help you with the disclaimers and legal notices section of the user guide. For regular software products, you might be able to use free templates from the internet, but if your product caters to an industry that has government regulations in place, then it's best to seek professional help from someone who can guide you in creating appropriate terms of use, disclaimers, warnings, and other legal notices. Freelance websites are good places to find skilled legal experts.

Technical Writer

The technical writer is the person who will understand the software from the development team and write the actual user manual. A good technical writer should have the following skills:
  1. Ability to write clearly and correctly. 
  2. Expertise in working with word processing software.
  3. Ability to express ideas through images.
  4. Ability to understand software functionality.
  5. Ability to create good instructional content. 
Large organizations usually have a full-time team of technical writers but most small to mid-sized companies don't have dedicated technical writers. However, lots of people work as freelance technical writers. You can connect with good them on any of the freelance websites listed later in this article. If you need to work with someone local, a web search should help you locate them.

Depending on the volume of work, you may need to work with one or more technical writers simultaneously. 

Point of Contact in the Development Team

It's a good idea to assign a dedicated person from the development team who will coordinate with the technical writer(s). Such a person will have the following responsibilities:
  1. Explain the software's functionality to the technical writer(s).
  2. Provide technical details such as installation requirements, FAQs, troubleshooting instructions, etc.
  3. Furnish screenshots.
  4. Verify the user guide for overall technical correctness.
  5. Coordinate with someone who can test the user guide (explained in the next section).

User Guide Tester

A user guide should be thoroughly tested to ensure that all instructions produce the desired results. For example. the user guide tester should install the software on a fresh machine by exactly following the instructions outlined in the guide and verify if the software is indeed installed properly. Similarly, the tester should test all the admin as well as user features by following instructions in the user guide and verify that they produce the desired results. 

After the testing session, the tester should produce a list of features that did not work as explained in the instructions. They should also make a note of instructions that were difficult to understand or follow.

You might be tempted to assign this work to someone from the software development or testing team, but I will recommend working with a person who has no prior knowledge of the software. It will cost you a little additional money and time but these will be well spent. A person who comes with a blank slate is more likely to point out mistakes that a developer or tester who is already familiar with your software will miss out.

You can work with freelancers or college interns to test the user guide.

Proofreader/Editor

A proof-reader corrects superficial errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, verb tenses, etc. 

An editor reviews and improves how information is presented and structured. An editor will ensure that your user guide is well organized and easy to understand for the audience. 

It's a good idea to work with just one person who will proofread and edit your user guide. 

If you don't wish to have your user manual reviewed, then you may want to use an automated grammar correcting software such a Grammarly or one of its alternatives to ensure that the document is grammatically correct. I personally use Grammarly for my work and I've been very satisfied with its quality.

Resources

Here's a list of websites where you can connect with freelancers:
  1. fiverr.com - a great website for finding a wide variety of freelancers
  2. freelancer.com - another great website for finding a wide variety of freelancers
  3. upwork.com - yet another great website for finding a wide variety of freelancers
  4. 99designs.com - A great community for finding freelancers to do logo, image, and brand design work, here



Monday, March 19, 2018

Planning a User Guide - Part 2/5 - Determining the Overall Scope

Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash


In the previous post, I described how to do an audience analysis for a user guide. Understanding the audience will help you make design decisions that will serve your users in a better way. Once you have understood what the audience needs, the next step -- and the topic of this post -- is to plan the overall scope of the manual.

I have outlined below, a list of sections that most manuals consist of. It's a comprehensive list and it's quite possible that your manual won't need all these sections. This post will also help you decide which sections you need.

Cover Page

The Cover Page contains the following details:
  • The title of the user guide.
  • A company logo.
  • The version number of the product. 
Optionally, the Cover Page can also mention the publish date and a one-line copyright notice. Sometimes, these details are mentioned on the page immediately following the cover page.


Legal Notices

The Legal Notices section may extend over several pages. This section begins with your company contact details which typically contain the following:
  • Corporate address.
  • Phone number.
  • Website URL.
  • Email
The actual Legal Notices appear after the contact details. Here's a list of notices that are most commonly used.
  • Copyright notice.
  • Terms of use including any disclaimers.
  • A mention of industry standards and warnings, if applicable.
  • A note about trademarks.

Preface

The Preface is usually a single chapter and contains the following details:
  • What this guide contains: A brief description of what this user guide contains.
  • Intended audience: A brief description of the intended audience and assumptions about the domain and technical knowledge they need to use the manual effectively.
  • Providing feedback about the user guide: An email address where users can provide feedback about the user guide.
  • Typographical Conventions.: Describes the various fonts used in the document and what they signify.


Table of Contents

In digital documents, it is a good practice to have a Table of Contents with page numbers and links to various chapters.

You can decide how deep you want to nest the table of contents. I suggest including the main sections of each chapter. Going one level below the chapters adds value but going deeper than that might just add clutter.

Introduction

The Introduction is the first real-content chapter in the user manual. It is usually a single chapter but if the contents are large enough then it could be broken down into multiple chapters. A typical Introduction contains the following details:
  • A high-level explanation of the business domain, the value proposition of the software, important concepts, and terminology.
  • High-level architecture/design diagram with a brief description of its components.
  • What's new in this version.


System Requirements

Many user guides include System Requirements in the Introduction but I prefer it to be a separate chapter by itself. This chapter lists the minimum hardware and software requirements to run the software.

Installation and Setup

This section is usually split into multiple chapters. They contain the following details:
  • Installing the software, along with any special setup instructions.
  • Uninstalling the software.

Administration

The Administration section is usually split into multiple chapters. It describes all the features that contribute towards administering and maintaining the product. This includes features such as creating and managing users; managing security and permissions; managing quotas; networking; various rules; etc.

Using the Software

This section contains a description of the features available to regular users of the software. It describes everything a user can do with the software. This section is usually split into multiple chapters.

Most user guides follow a sequence of the menu items and other UI elements. A high-level grouping of the topics can be done based either on user stories or on high-level menu items.

A good user guide may also provide background information about the concepts that a user should understand to use the software well.

Troubleshooting 

All software has known issues and known pitfalls. The Troubleshooting section describes various issues a user might face while using the software and how to overcome them. This section may be split into multiple chapters for troubleshooting the installation and troubleshooting usage issues.

Getting Help

This chapter describes what a user should do if the troubleshooting instructions do not solve their problem. You would typically include the following information in this section:
  • A brief mention of all the log files, where to find them, and what they contain.
  • Details of online support forums that your company hosts or supports.
  • Information about how to reach customer support and the details that should be included in the support request for speedy resolution. These details are usually screenshots of the problem along with appropriate log files.

Quickstart Guide

For a complex software, the Quickstart Guide contains the most basic information that a user needs to know to get started with the product. A Quickstart Guide follows the philosophy that underlies the design of many software products: make basic features easy to use and complex features possible to use. The quickstart guide contains a description of the basic features. You can also think of this section as the 'Start Using Software X Within an Hour' guide. 

Unless it's really short, the Quickstart Guide should be bundled as a separate document.

Working Examples

This section is useful if your software supports an API or has an in-built scripting interface. It contains working examples of how to use the API and/or the scripting language. It's usually a good idea to bundle this section as a separate document.

Appendix

The Appendix contains additional information that is useful to the user. It may also contain information that cannot be cleanly mentioned anywhere else in the manual. Here are some examples of what you might want to include in your Appendix:
  • Glossary of important terms.
  • Keyboard shortcuts.
  • Error codes. 
  • Function reference.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Planning a User Guide - Part 1/5 - Audience Analysis


Creating a User Guide is in many ways similar to building software. Just like software, creating a successful manual also needs prior planning. 

Planning a User Guide is a large topic so I’ll write it as a series of eight posts - one for each planning task.

Here’s the first post on audience analysis.

Audience Analysis

A User Guide explains how to install and use the product. An effective User Guide does it in a way that is easy and clear for its readers. It considers the goals and requirements of the users. Therefore, the first planning task is to understand the target audience.

The best way to understand your users is to interview them. The interview is done to identify usage patterns and a set of attributes that will help you communicate more effectively with your target audience.

You can begin by identifying a few (let’s say five) users and interview them to understand their requirements. If you already have a few pilot or actual customers then it's best to begin with them. However, if you don’t have customers as yet, then the interviews can be done with people you already know and who might fit the profile of a typical user. Old colleagues, family, and friends are usually happy to help. You can also tap into your LinkedIn network. It might reveal interesting people who may not have crossed your mind. 

The outcome of user interviews is a set of models that will help you understand your customers. User Personas are a great way to model your target audience. Aurora Harley gives a nice definition in this article:

A persona is a fictional, yet realistic description of a typical or target user of the product. A persona is an archetype instead of an actual living human, but personas should be described as if they were real people.

In software terminology, a persona can be thought of as an abstraction of a group of people who belong to the same user type. It contains those characteristics, of the group, that are important for building a better product - in this case, the user guide. However, a persona is more than just an abstraction. It is an attempt to make the abstraction personal and realistic. A typical abstraction might describe a user in dry, statistical terms. But a persona makes the description more human, helping us to not only understand but also empathize with the user and their requirements.

Unless your software is for a very niche audience, you will most likely need multiple personas - one for each type of user. Realistically, I suggest creating about 3 - 5 personas. If you are building an enterprise software then you also need to create personas for the system admins who will install and manage the system. My suggestion is to create 2 - 3 system administrator personas in addition to user personas. Usually interviewing 2 - 3 people for each persona should be sufficient. 

From the perspective of a user guide, a typical persona would have the following details:
  • Personal details such as age, gender, and educational background.
  • Professional details such as occupation and experience.
  • Knowledge of the business domain and terminology. 
  • Needs
    • Does the user have any special needs?
    • On what device do they typically access the User Guide and the product? 
    • Does the user use this software for work or is it for personal use?
    • Any other needs the user has.
  • Goals when working with the product: speed, accuracy, thoroughness, etc.
  • A photograph of a typical user: You can photograph an actual user or pull out a stock photo that most closely resembles the details you've gathered. Having a photo may seem insignificant but it’s not. A photograph will make it easier for your team to empathize with the user.
Once ready, the user personas can be used as a reference point for making decisions related to the manual’s design and content. For example, personal details of the user will help in determining the choice of words and the tone of the manual. A User Guide written for an audience in their 60s and 70s will use a different set of words than a User Guide written for an audience primarily in their 30s. You might also want to use a larger font for the former. 

If most of the users read the manual on their mobile device then you would avoid a multi-column design. You would also avoid margin notes. 

It’s important to know how familiar users are with the business domain and terminology. This point is really important because a typical manual contains a lot of terminologies. We often assume familiarity but it’s often not the case. It’s good to know which words and concepts the users might have to struggle with so they can be included in the glossary.  

A product made for hobbyists might have a manual that explains a lot of background concepts and provides useful tips, while a manual centered around business users will be more to the point and formal. 

These are just some ways to use the information from user personas - you’ll create your own rules as you go along. The key is to ask yourself questions like:

  • Will this cover design appeal to Emily and John?
  • Will Mr. Watkins be able to read this font style? Are the margins and spacing comfortable for him?
  • Ms. Shaw does not have much time on her hands. Is the information I am writing concise enough for her?
It’s really about making it a barrier-free experience for the users.  

Finally, user personas serve as a terminology for discussions, much like design patterns do in software architecture related discussions. In software architecture discussions, using a pattern name such as ‘The Singleton Pattern’ or ‘MVC Pattern’ allows the speaker to use a name that expands into concepts that would have otherwise taken a lot of explaining. Similarly, in User Guide related discussions, a writer might say - “I think this decision will be perfect for Emily’s needs.” The user persona referenced to by “Emily” expands to all the needs described in that persona without having to mention each of them individually.

In conclusion, begin your User Guide with a planning phase to ensure that it's easy for your users to use and understand. Getting to know your target audience is the first planning step. We use User Personas to model types of users and then subsequently these personas in discussions and while writing the User Guide.

Here are three articles that you can read for more information on User Personas:

  1. How to create personas (HubSpot Academy)
  2. How to create a user persona (99 Designs)
  3. How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real. Life Data
In the next blog post, I will explain how to define the overall scope of the User Guide.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Five Reasons Why Your Product Needs an Awesome User Guide

Macintosh User Manual - Clicking

A user guide is essentially a book-length document containing instructions for installing, using or troubleshooting a hardware or software product. A user guide can be very brief - for example, only 10 or 20 pages or it can be a full-length book of 200 pages or more. -- prismnet.com
As engineers, we give a lot of importance to product design, architecture, code quality, and UX. However, when it comes to the user manual, we often only manage to pay lip service. This is not good. A usable manual is as important as usable software because it is the first line of help for the user and the first line of customer service for the organization. Any organization that prides itself on great customer service must have an awesome user manual for the product.
In the spirit of listicles - here are at least five reasons why you should have an awesome user manual!


Enhance User Satisfaction


In my fourteen years as a software developer, I have often been in situations where something just wouldn't work in a software I was using. When this happens, I usually try a few quick hacks and if they didn't work either, I reach for the user manual. I consider the user manual to be the first line of support and I open it with part hope and part trepidation. There have been times -- God bless the team who wrote it -- when the manual pointed me to the solution immediately. The feeling I have at such times is unmistakable. There is a sense of relief; a sense of joy; and a sense of gratitude. It is very satisfying. I say a silent thank you to the team for making my life easier. I feel glad I purchased that software instead of the alternatives.
I'm sure most people feel that way and yet when it is our turn to write the manual, we somehow miss out on its importance. 
If you value user satisfaction - make sure your product has a great manual.

Reduce Support Overhead


I have also been on the other side of the table where I have had to talk with bewildered customers who were stuck with issues they couldn't fix. These calls typically took anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. Add to that the cost of context switching from my work and the overall cost of a sloppy User Guide is fairly heavy.
Granted that developers don't have to get on customer support calls in most organizations (although they do in most startups) it's still someone's time spent that could have been saved with a better manual.
Whether it's developer time or the time of the support staff - lost time translates directly to cost. Not only that, it also results in a lost opportunity to give more timely support if the support team gets swamped. 


Increase Sales

By now enough people have burned their fingers with buggy or unusable software. A good user manual is no longer seen as an added benefit. It's a must-have for many customers. I have always considered the user manual as an important factor when evaluating software for a purchase decision and I suspect many people will consider it to be an important factor before closing the deal.
Another way user manuals impact sales is through the satisfaction of existing customers. Satisfied customers are some of your best evangelists. They will talk about the product with other people which can generate sales with little or no effort from the sales team.


Create a Great Image for Your Product and Company

Scott Cooley considers documentation to be a maturity indicator. How true! It takes a mature company to understand the importance of great documentation and also allocate resources to actually create it.
It's also an indicator of how much your company values the customer's time. All organizations declare satisfaction as their #1 priority. Here's a simple way to actually demonstrate it.
Finally, a beautifully written user manual adds that extra X-factor to the image of the product. Producing great user documentation is an effective way to enhance the brand value of your company.


Limit Legal Liability Related to Misuse of the Product

You are liable if people hurt themselves while using your product and you haven't provided them with the means to avoid it. -- technicalwriting.eu
This one's probably more important for hardware products or software products that handle machinery or critical health-related equipment. If you do have a critical product it is your duty to write a manual that clearly outlines appropriate usage and safety instructions. But even if you aren't shipping critical software, it's still a good idea to describe the correct way to use your product.

Summing it up


We all know the benefits of great user documentation, but somehow deadline pressures make us complacent. However, if you consider the cost and opportunity benefit that accrues from:
  1. Enhanced user satisfaction
  2. Reduced support overhead
  3. Increased sales
  4. Improved branding
  5. Limited legal liabilities
- you will agree that it's a no-brainer to put in additional time and resources for creating awesome User Guides.