Trends in Technical Documentation
Having been technical writer for more than ten years, I’ve seen my fair share of technology come and go.
In the IT and technical writing industry it’s especially common to see some form of new “ground-breaking” technology surrounded by a flurry of hype, advertisements, webinars, and the like. Some tools have been helpful, yet others have faded off as quickly as they arose. However, the stronger technology contenders are the ones that follow long-term trends.
One such prominent trend in technical documentation is the ability to match the audience’s needs at not a generic level, but at an ever-increasingly customized level.
Traditional End-User Documentation
In traditional document management, a user may have been happy enough to receive the entire printed manual accompanying their product. By scanning the table of contents at the beginning of the document – or an index at the end of the document – the actual flipping of pages comprised the “interactive experience” in end user help.
With a push to reduce costs, and to comply with environmentally sensitive “green” initiatives, a more recent trend has been to go with “paperless” end-user documentation. To answer this trend, the Adobe Corporation’s portable document format (PDF) became the standard for delivery of large documents.
PDF has been a welcome solution to technical writers of end user help because PDFs are easy to make, and the software can be inexpensively bought from a large handful of PDF-maker vendors that offer competitive pricing. PDFs have been welcomed by end users as this means they don’t need to lug around large printed manuals that would normally accompany their products. PDFs are text-searchable, which allows end users to quickly scan a document for the entry users need.
A Recent Trend in End-User Documentation: Granular Content
However, when a PDF document is especially large, skimming every entry for a certain keyword may become extremely cumbersome – especially if the keyword you search for appears several hundred times in a document.
Take a document authored for the aviation maintenance industry as an example. A jet airliner comes with its own set of maintenance manuals, which at last count from a friend in the industry came to about 400 volumes of 500-page manuals – roughly 200,000 pages of print and PDF manuals!
If an aircraft mechanic in this situation searches for the word “bolt” in a PDF document, that entry will likely come up thousands of times. This is a clear example of when a newer, more effective method for searching through and using end user documentation can be helpful.
A more recent trend addressing this challenge gets rid of the word “document” and classifies itself more as “context-sensitive help”. In other words, rather than having the user scour through pages of content, why not give the user access to only the help they need that very moment?
Context-sensitive help obviates the need for clumsily referring to a table of contents or going all the way to the end of a document to skim the index of a traditional paper bound book.
Implementation of Context-Sensitive Help for Software
One application for context-sensitive help (CSH) is to have the help actually loaded onto the product with which you are using. For example, if you were using a software piece and needed help, a convenient way to get this help would be to click on a help button and have help content specifically purposed for the screen on which you were working.
Not Everyone Uses It
Unfortunately some providers are behind on the times with this kind of help. While most Microsoft products have a help button (a question mark icon) that offers access to immediate help, this help comes in the form of the entire content piece. What’s more, that help is only available through a search of their entire content repository. Sure, it’s readily available, but the user must slog through the content until they get to what they need – if they indeed find it at all.
Fortunately for us, software offerings are available, and these do provide immediate access to relevant help.