Adobe released its latest version of RoboHelp Version 11 (and Technical Communications Suite 5), a while back and asked if we could write a review. There have been a number of excellent reviews, so we’ve been wondering what extra we can say. We’ve decided to address some of the questions we’re often asked by organisations when they’re deciding which Help Authoring Tool to choose.
David Farbey wrote a semi-existentialist post on the challenges for technical communicators yesterday. I’d like to look at the issue in a different way, by looking at the big questions in technical communication today. The answers to these questions (which may be decided by people outside of the profession) are likely to affect the future direction for technical communicators.
On Monday, I spoke at the Visma Developer Days conference in Riga, Latvia, about some issues software companies have to address when migrating from developing on-premises software to Software as a Service.
One of the of the biggest changes is that the revenues are spread over the lifetime of customer – they pay on a monthly basis rather than an initial up-front payment. It becomes vital customers don’t give up on using the software after only a short while, because you won’t have earnt much income from that customer. If the software is difficult to use, and if users cannot find the answers to questions when they need them, there’s a good chance they will stop using the software, and stop paying their subscription fees.
We’re seeing a number of software companies changing their approach to providing user assistance (user documentation). More companies are thinking about it at the start of the project, so they can do a better job of delivering user documentation than they’ve done for on-premises software. They’re seeing documentation as part of the customer journey, and part of the design process.
This is welcome news, although it requires development teams to combine product design with information design. I wonder if there’ll be similar trends emerging at the next conference I’ll be attending – MadWorld 2014.
Many software companies, when they start out, provide user documentation as downloadable PDFs or as web pages. As they develop more products and versions, and as they expand into countries that use different English spellings, the amount of documents can grow until it becomes hard to keep all of these documents up to date.
It’s at this point that they tend to call a specialist technical writing company (such as Cherryleaf) to see if they can fix the problem for them. We find they’ve usually had a brief look at a Help Authoring tool, such as Flare or RoboHelp, and can see that it would solve a lot of their problems. However, they’re often not really sure how to use these tools in the best way.
Although topic-based authoring has been around for over twenty years, for many people it’s a completely new concept. It is, to quote from either Hamlet or Star Trek VI, an undiscovered country. Our meetings with them often end up focusing on the benefits of topic-based authoring.
Topic-based writing is an approach where you write a piece of text (or topics) that typically contains a paragraph or two about a single topic. These topics can be combined to create a page in a PDF document, and they can be organised in a sequence to create an online Help system ( See topic-based authoring page in Wikipedia). It’s a modular approach to creating content. The main advantage of this approach is the topics are often reusable; you can save time by reusing topics across different documents, and you can publish the same content to different media. For example, you could use a topic in training courseware, in a user guide and in marketing information.
As each topic is usually about a specific subject, and has an identifiable purpose, it can also help the writer write more clearly. If you need longer articles, you can build these up from the topics you’ve created.
It’s easy for professional Technical Authors to forget sometimes that many people have never come across this approach to writing before.
Peter J. Bogaards posted a link on Twitter yesterday to an article and a press release on how IBM is adopting a design-led approach to software design.
“IBM Design Thinking is a broad, ambitious new approach to re-imagining how we design our products and solutions … Quite simply, our goal — on a scale unmatched in the industry — is to modernize enterprise software for today’s user who demands great design everywhere, at home and at work.” (Phil Gilbert, general manager, IBM Design)
I understand the IBM Design Thinking approach will affect everything it does: product development, processes, innovation, and, interestingly, the technical documentation/user assistance associated with products. Both design and traditional technical communication share the same goals – to deliver something that is very usable, robust and aesthetically pleasing – so it makes sense to have the two teams aligned closely.
After a short break, our Advanced Technical Writing Techniques training course has returned. We’ve scheduled a public course for Thursday 24th April 2014, in South Kensington, central London.
Past clients include technical communicators from Citrix, GE, IBM UK, Lloyds Banking Group, Sage plc, Schlumberger and Visa International. One delegate commented:
“The way in which customers consume our content is changing, as are the different expectations customers have regarding user assistance and support. Your course provided further insight and ideas regarding how to review and adapt to ensure content is relevant and appealing to our customers.”
This course is ideal for Technical Authors and those developing assistance for users of software.
Discover the advanced new writing styles emerging in technical communication. Don’t get left behind. You can book a place via the webpage Trends in Technical Communication Workshop – Advanced Technical Writing Techniques.
We’ve been asked to a find candidates for a fabulous permanent vacancy at one of our clients.
You need to lead and develop their vision of the role of User Assistance and content. This means treating content as a function of design (and user experience), with the appropriate information provided to users at all points during the customer journey. Your role will be discover and incorporate the best ideas and practices from other leaders in content creation into your team.
In effect, this means they are looking for someone who is currently:
- a content strategy manager (media manager/editor) with experience of developing user assistance for software, or
- a documentation/technical publications manager with experience of content strategy.
You can work in Buckinghamshire or in Cambridge, and you can work part of the week from home if you wish.
For more details, see:
I met up with a Technical Author at the Technical Communications UK 2013 conference whom I’ve been talking to on the phone over recent months. She’s been trying to convince her bosses that they should take a less chaotic approach to producing user documentation.
I’d previously suggested she look at how much it was costing them to translate their user documentation, so they could build a business case around that. She thought they were translating the user documentation into eight languages, but, at the conference, she told me that she’d discovered it was actually 24.
With that amount of localisation, there’s an opportunity for some significant savings if they could re-use content from one Help system in another.