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