Best Tools for Technical Documentation

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Technical documentation is a very important aspect of software development. No matter how good your product may be, no one will use it if it cannot be described properly. As part of this, you need to make sure that your users can read the tutorials and manuals written for them. This article focuses on some of the best tools that will help you create the proper documentation.

If you are a technical writer, like me, then we are always looking for the best tools for writing. There is plenty of it documentation tools on the web, but how many of them are actually useful? The purpose of this article is to teach you how to find useful technical documentation tools and share some my favorites. You’ll learn about technical writing tools that cover different aspects of documentation.

Do you like code? Is it a passion for you? Do you like to put your thoughts down in the form of documentation? If yes, then documentation is the path that opens before you. The field of documentation has a lot of scope and different areas in which developers can express themselves. In this post we have discussed a set of tools that are capable enough to let users create software documentation. As an addition, we have also included tips that can be followed while filling up user documentation. 

Getting into the market of technical documentation can seem like venturing into a largely unexplored area. Different tools, technologies, and file formats make it hard to understand where you should begin. This blog post will tell you what are the Best Tools for Technical Documentation. For example, Microsoft Word has been used for years as the go-to tool for technical writers but with its strong focus on layout and formatting, it is often less than ideal for writing either plain text or code samples .

What is Technical Writing?

Before learning about the top tools for technical writing, let’s get the definition right. Technical writing is the skill of explaining how to use a particular technology to a non-expert user through clear communication. In other words, technical writing is defined as simplifying complex information in an easy-to-understand format!

Technical writers collaboratively work with graphic designers, editors, illustrators, document specialists, content managers, instructional designers, and analysts to produce a stellar variety of technical documentation, including:

  • Knowledgebase articles
  • Policy documents
  • Simulations
  • Online and embedded help
  • Training manuals, and much more!
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1. Whatfix

Whatfix signifies a paradigm shift in the way help documentation is presented online. Static and lengthy web help pages do not catch the user’s attention as effectively as the interactive, pictorial guides presented by Whatfix, popularly called ‘balloons’. 

Moreover, online help in today’s world needs to spread across various gadgets – be it PCs, tablets, or smartphones. Whatfix automatically adapts the help content to suit the gadget. And the same help content can be accessed in different forms – as a slideshow, PDF, or video.

Author’s Tip: Whatfix supports a unique feature – Real-time Interactive walkthrough – wherein you put your help snippets directly into the live product page. The user reads the snippet in the Whatfix balloon and performs the action accordingly on the page. This is a popular technical writing tool amongst business looking for a shift from the traditional methodologies.

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Easily create interactive technical documentation with Whatfix

Discover how Whatfix’s Digital Adoption Platform can help your organization create in-app technical documentation with curated content including in-app guidance, personalized workflows, and self-help knowledge bases. Try Whatfix now!

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2. MediaWiki

Displaying your product’s online help as wiki pages is a simple and effective idea. Your pages can be integrated into Wikipedia directly if you don’t have a separate website for your online product. Alternately, you can host Wiki-like help pages on your product website. The high familiarity of this format among online users is a key advantage, and the free wiki editing tool MediaWiki Visual Editor makes help creation quite simple.

MediaWiki is a PHP-based web editing tool, which Wikipedia uses. However, even major software corporations, Intel being a key example, use this tool to present their sales and marketing information, How To’s, and help pages on policy and procedures.

Author’s Tip: This technical writing tool comes with good support for extensions – for multi-language content, collaborative reviewing, tracking edits, built-in search, etc.

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3. Adobe RoboHelp

Industry-standard authoring tool used to create help systems for desktop or web-based applications. No computer user is a stranger to RoboHelp. Every time your press F1 in any of your standard software applications, the help window that appears is almost always created using RoboHelp. However, it can also be used to churn out the conventional technical documentation for print, such as guides and training manuals.

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The sophisticated RoboHelp IDE enables technical writers to develop large-scale help projects and render them on multiple hardware devices/operating systems, and in multiple formats (PDF, HTML, DOC, etc). The Older version of RoboHelp can be purchased as a low-cost edition if budget is a constraint. However, small companies can stick to simple, free alternatives such as WordPress blogs or Wikis. Good old MS Word also can generate basic HTML help files for you.

Author’s Tip: Managing large software products with regular upgrade versions can be a major challenge for technical writers as they have to be in sync with the product change history. Help files often show configurable user-defined variables that are repeated several times throughout the help documentation. (For example, a variable such as “Sleep time after inactivity” is set to 30 sec in the previous version, to be set to 1 min in the upgrade.) The RoboHelp project would take care of updating the variable value throughout the help files!

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4. Notepad++

A very effective beginner’s HTML editor. Most people learn the basics of HTML programming on this technical writing tool. If your software product does not require very heavy online help documentation, for making help files of medium size, this tool is more than sufficient.
Its customizable GUI allows for easy editing, it supports WYSIWYG for printing, and also has multi-language support options.

Author’s Tip: Notepad++ comes with a rich set of plug-ins. Multi-clipboard, Code Compare, Auto-Save are some popular ones. Technical writers need to pick the right set of plug-ins, which can transform an ordinary beginner’s editor to a viable option for online help editing.

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5. WordPress

The go-to place if you want to have a technical documentation for your product in the form of blogs. WordPress is an open-source, free, online content management platform. Blogs written on WordPress can either be accessed directly from the WordPress blog URL or can be integrated into your company website.

This article itself is hosted on the WordPress blog called Whatfix Academy. If the goal is to publish online content about your company and associated technologies regularly, then set up a WordPress blog account. Blogs can also capture user responses in the form of comments and likes, which makes it easier to engage with your target audience and sense their appreciation for your product.

Author’s Tip: Blogs in isolation may not gather sufficient eyeballs. So, write your blog first, promote your blog on social media platforms next and finally measure the viewership/responses before getting on with the next set of blogs!

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6. Adobe Photoshop

One tool which most technical writers across the industry swear by. It is the world’s most popular image editing tool for creating and editing photos and raster (pixel) based artwork. Can be used to create user interface designs, web pages, banner ads, video graphics, editing pictures for print, manipulating an image, superimposing one image on another, refining a photograph to iron out imperfections, correcting lighting issues, and more. Image editing process is reversible and incremental so that changes can be rolled back easily.

Author’s Tip: For professional designers, who are constantly in need of an image editing tool, there is almost no replacement to Adobe Photoshop. However, if you are an occasional user, try GIMP which is open source. It does support only RGB color schemes whereas Photoshop also supports CMYK (CYAN YELLOW MAGENTA BLACK) color mode. And the learning curve is higher for GIMP, but its free while Photoshop costs a bomb!

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7. Adobe Illustrator

Tool for creating and editing vector-based illustrations such as logos and brand marks or other design elements. Graphic designers often make the mistake of designing their product logos on Photoshop. But the same logo needs to be printed on visiting cards, as well as massive advertisement billboards. So, image scaling without losing clarity is the key here, which vector graphics-based imaging tools achieve. Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw are the leading technical writing tools technical writing in this space.

Author’s Tip: This tool is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud solution with expensive monthly rentals. Free alternative technical writing tools like Inkscape or Affinity Designer can do the job equally well with SVG formats. Unless you require all major technical writing tools that are part of this solution (Photoshop, InDesign, etc), this tool is not a must-have.

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8. Microsoft Visio

A popular diagramming tool used in engineering applications design. Technical writers often need to design flowcharts, architectural diagrams, electrical circuit diagrams, software product design, and so on. Visio is a convenient aid for this.

It is an IEEE compliant technical writing tool that conforms to software industry standards such as UML (Unified Modeling Language) and BPMN (Business Process Model and Notation).

Authors’ Tip: Visio has not been part of the traditional Microsoft Office suite, has always been sold separately similar to MS Project. But a very recent announcement from Microsoft says that online subscribers of Office 365 can now access Visio also.

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9. Windows Snipping Tool

If you are looking for screen capture options that are more sophisticated than PrntScr on your keyboard, Snipping Tool is a good choice.

Apart from full-screen capture, you can also capture freehand crops, or partial screen area crops. To capture still images from videos, use the delay option so that the exact frame can be saved as an image.

Authors’ Tip: It is part of the Windows suite of software, but may not be enabled by default in some editions of Windows.

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10. Windows Movie Maker

A simple video editing tool that technical writers can use to make their product demo videos. It is part of the Windows Essentials suite. However, since January 2017, this software has been discontinued, without the announcement of a proper replacement. So, all those users with older Windows versions, thank your lucky stars.

Authors’ Tip: Videos and audio clippings can be arranged and edited in a storyboard view, frame by frame. Or a series of still images can be stretched on a timeline. Audio voiceovers meshed with background sounds can give your videos a sophisticated edge.

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11. Powtoon

Technical writing is increasingly becoming visual. Animated videos are an excellent way to capture user attention and pass on the message in an engaging way. Powtoon is a good web-based animation tool, sold as a SaaS product. Animated presentations and explainer videos can be created using this tool for free. However, the videos created with the free version would carry a ‘Powtoon’ watermark.

Authors’ Tip: If the technical writing is not for official purposes, it perfectly OK to use the free version of this tool. However, for a nominal rental, you could get the premium version which allows you to create videos without the watermark and several other features.

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12. Prezi

An unconventional take on making demos in the form of a video presentation. Unlike Powerpoint, where content is rigidly divided into slides, Prezi gives you just one massive blank canvas. You can go about writing, drawing on it as you please. Zooming in or out of the content in focus and shifting focus from one frame to another on the same canvas – is how you make a continuous video presentation.

Authors’ Tip: Apart from the free version, there is a student trial version that is also free which has almost all the features of the paid version. Pick that one.

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13. Microsoft Word

It does feel rather silly to write about the ubiquitous MS Word. But however commonplace it may be in our daily digital lives, it still happens to be the best friend of a technical writer. With easy conversion between PDF and DOC formats, the simple combination of Word and Adobe Acrobat Reader is not to be taken lightly. This article might be about all the fancy technical writing tools in the world, but it is being written using – the humble MS Word.

Authors’ Tip: Experiment with the various document templates that Word has on offer. They help to make your document look appropriate for the purpose intended – as marketing flyers, technical whitepapers, troubleshooting guides, and so on.

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14. Kingsoft WPS Office

MS Word, PowerPoint, and Excel are known to be the most used technical writing software tools, miles ahead of alternatives available. Only the Android revolution has slowed down the MS Office juggernaut a little. And given a position of prominence to Kingsoft Office, a reasonable and free alternative to MS Office.

ALSO READ:   Best Documentation Apps

Authors’ Tip: There are a few nuanced features that WPS Writer does not support – Thesaurus being one of them. Thesaurus is an important feature for technical writers as we are constantly looking for better words to express the same points in different technical documents!

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15. Google Docs

In a world that is increasingly turning to a handy mobile phone to read documents, rather than take the trouble of powering the computer on, Google Docs is slowly gaining prominence. Creating documents from scratch would not be convenient on Google Docs, but collaborative review and editing can be done efficiently through this cloud-based alternative to MS Office.

Author’s Tip: Its seamless integration with Gmail and Google Drive makes it even more attractive. As a technical writer, you would stick to sophisticated word processing tools. But your product manager who might be on the move all the time is sure to catch up on his reviews on his phone, in all probability.

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16. Adobe Framemaker

A sophisticated document processor for large, industrial standard documents. Can be used to generate structured documents with an XML framework, with 100% DITA compliance. Can be used for unstructured documents as well, as a replacement to document editors like MS Word.

Framemaker is a good choice for generating structured documents with pre-defined templates to comply with several industrial standard formats – such as legal agreements and financial statements. It supports TOC or index creation across multiple documents, has rich formatting options. Does not sag in performance when graphics are inserted.

Author’s Tip: Framemaker is a sound investment for established companies with formal technical writing teams that need to produce large documents of over 100 pages. However, single product companies and startups need not make this investment. There are free tools XML-based document authoring tools available for free. And you can always fall back on good old MS Word!

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17. oXygen XML Author

This is a free, open-source DITA compliant XML editor, with several loyal users and good reviews. DITA (Document Information Typing Architecture) is an open standard for document authoring and publishing that has slowly made its way into technical document management. Simply because it removes the dependency of editing content on a particular tool. You churn out DITA compliant online documentation (a set of XML files), then editing and maintaining it in the future would be possible through any other DITA compliant tool.

Since DITA specifications are an area that requires special focus, let me save that for another article.

Author’s Tip: Suffice to say that oXygen suite of tools is a viable alternative to the hugely popular but prohibitively expensive Adobe Framemaker. oXygen Author is generally used in combination with oXygen Developer.

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Why is Technical Writing Important?

When working in high-tech environments, including those that involve software applications, operating industrial equipment, or consumer products, you need to make sure that complex topics are simplified for your target audience. That’s where technical writing comes in handy! Quality technical writing can minimize misinterpretation and prevent the risk of human errors.

Good documentation also results in useful, relevant, and accurate information to allow a set of actions from the audience in pursuit of a defined goal. The goal may be to safely consume packaged food, comply with a law, coach a sports team, or analyze a product catalog. If the action requires skill or expertise to perform, then technical writing is a necessary component.

Conclusion

In the IT industry, it is crucial to have a technical documentation team which is responsible for creating, updating, and enhancing all of the internal and external technical resources of a company. These documents provide access to people within the company, including IT presenters, developers, consultants and contractors. On top of this, they give external organizations like customers and vendors access to information on a project, program or service.

Our generation is a true IT generation. We grew up surrounded by technology that has evolved rapidly since the appearance of the first computer. This has led to great changes: from TV and radio to smartphones, from buses and trains in urban transport to driverless cars, we are all part of innovation. With the development of technology, documentation is becoming more and more important, tool landscape is also changing each day. For more information, you can talk with our technical writers who have vast experience in developing the best documentations.

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