Software to Create Technical Documentation

You’ve likely heard the phrase “knowledge is power” before, right? While this statement, on its own, elicits an impactful mindset your enterprise or business should focus on, it’s true that it’s the process of attaining, optimizing, and analyzing that knowledge that makes the real difference.

That is to say, acknowledging that knowledge is power is one thing—obtaining and maximizing that knowledge is another. This is precisely where the technical documentation—as a process and as a fine-tuned software—comes into play, ultimately acting as that defining difference between acknowledgment and action. 

Making the decision to invest in technical documentation software is a big step in itself, but the larger one comes in the form of the exact technical documentation software you and your company should invest in. For most companies—no matter their niche or industry, access to a powerful, intuitive technical documentation software can make all the difference in the process of creating, publishing, and optimizing their technical documentation. Without a fine-tuned system or software, this process can be tedious, overwhelming, and inefficient. 

But how do you get from point A—deciding you need technical documentation software to help empower your enterprise—to point B—choosing the perfect-for-you software that’s going to streamline your technical documentation efforts? The short answer: plenty of research. The longer (and better) solution: read through this article, we’ve done the dirty work to provide you with the knowledge, reviews, and answers you need to choose the technical documentation software that’s going to change the way your business handles its technical documentation. 

So what is technical documentation?

Technical documentation can mean different things in different contexts. 

In one context, technical documentation for a business might be just documenting the content that its engineers or developers or technical resources use — source code, for example.

But it goes beyond that. Here’s one great way of looking at it (via Transcom):

The term ‘technical documentation’ refers to different documents with product-related data and information that are used and stored for different purposes. “Different purposes” mean: Product definition and specification, design, manufacturing, quality assurance, product liability, product presentation; description of features, functions and interfaces; intended, safe and correct use; service and repair of a technical product as well as its safe disposal.

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So you can see that the term technical documentation has evolved to include every piece of documentation a product uses across its lifecycle.

Following this definition, everything right from how-to guides, SOPs, product documents to release notes are all examples of it. That means your technical documentation software solution must support all of these.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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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Choosing a technical documentation software Solution

In addition to reviewing a solution for its support for the different documentation types, pay attention to these selection criteria. 

  • Pricing plans: Technical documentation software solutions often come with per user per month billing plans that are capped at storage limits and page views. These quickly become a problem when you have a large support team and get a high volume of hits, these can add up fast.
  • Good access control: Your technical documentation is usually a mix of private and public pieces. So your technical documentation software should come with at least some level of access control.
  • Comfortable writing and editing experience: Of course, you need a good writing and editing experience that your technical writers and other team members enjoy.

Conclusion

Technical documentation is a crucial part of any business and is largely considered to hand-in-hand with knowledge sharing processes. Finding software that works to integrate your needs all one, cohesive place can ultimately be the modern innovation your company needs to improve workflow and enhance processes effectively and efficiently. 

It’s important for developers to ensure that the code they write is easy to understand and maintain. This is where software documentation tools can come in handy. The main aim of this software documentation tools post is to provide information on these tools and give you an idea of what they are used for.

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