Which documentation software fits your needs?

August 24, 2023
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Documentation software plays a crucial role in creating, managing, and publishing content across various platforms and languages. It is an essential tool for technical writers, content strategists, and documentation engineers who require efficient management and publication of diverse content, ranging from help and user guides to developer documentation and policies and procedures.

But not all documentation software is the same, and selecting the right one for your needs requires understanding what’s available and what you need. Let’s examine the types of software you could use and the key features to look for. Then we’ll talk about the selection and implementation process.

Documentation Software Types

There are several types of software you could use to manage your documentation.

Document Management Systems (DMS)

The document management system is the first type of software built to manage content. In this case, that content is in the form of document files, using formats such as Microsoft Word and Adobe PDF. A DMS does not provide the ability to create and edit content; it only stores and manages versions of the document file. So, while it might do a good job of managing print versions of your documentation, if you want to publish that content to a digital experience, like a knowledge base, support, or documentation portal, don’t choose a DMS. You also can’t collaborate on content in a DMS; all that effort happens in another tool like Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Web Content Management System (CMS)

WordPress is probably the most well-known web content management system, but many other web content management systems are available. The Web CMS rose to dominance as companies moved from brochure-style static websites to dynamic ones, where the CMS managed website content at the page level.

There are differences in how different web content management systems work at a technical level, but they all have core features that include the ability to create content, edit, and manage content (and, in some cases, digital assets). Additionally, they are all specifically targeted at static website creation and management. Usually, this content is delivered to a website, although there are rare cases where a Web CMS can also deliver content as a PDF document.

But if you are looking to create documentation that is structured, with reusable sections, and robust taxonomy and metadata management, a Web CMS is not the right choice. It’s not designed to support large-scale documentation projects, and few can produce print versions of your content (like a PDF).

Component Content Management System (CCMS)

Many documentation teams use a component content management system to create, edit, and manage their documentation. A CCMS, such as the Paligo CCMS, offers single-sourcing – the ability to create content once and reuse it across multiple channels. Following a structured content model enables reuse and consistency in the information shared across all your documentation and the channels where it’s published.

For example, you can create and manage user guides, admin guides, technical guides, and knowledge base articles in one location, reusing content where it makes sense. A CCMS supports collaboration so multiple people can work on documentation projects at the same time. It also provides versioning, so if any content is changed, those changes are reflected everywhere it’s used. When creating a lot of documentation, a CCMS is the right choice. And if you have variants of your documentation, such as different products that share features, or a need to publish to various brands (white labeling) then a CCMS is essential.

That’s not to say a CCMS may not have disadvantages. Depending on the CCMS you choose, you may find there is a steep learning curve, and it may take longer to set the system up, import your legacy content, and get it cleaned up to a state that’s ready to publish. So remember that all CCMSs, like any other CMS, are not created equal.

Before You Start Looking at Software Solutions

Some people will start a software purchase process by looking at what’s available and mapping their requirements to software features. But let’s set aside the software for a minute and think about your process for creating and publishing documentation right now.

Spend some time documenting your current process. Identify stakeholders and their role in the process, outline each stage of the current process, what steps are performed, who’s involved, how people work together, how you deal with issues, how you move between steps, and so on. Don’t worry about what doesn’t work or what you want to change at this stage; just map out the current state.

Once you have the current process outlined, document what isn’t working, what you want to improve, and if capabilities are missing from the current process that you would like to add. We call this your target or desired state.

Key Features to Look For in Documentation Software

With a current view of your process in mind, it’s time to look at software options. There are five key features to look for in documentation software.

Authoring and Editing Capabilities

First, you want the ability to create and edit content. An easy-to-use, easy-to-navigate user interface is essential because technical writers and documentation engineers will spend a lot of time here. A dashboard that provides quick access to the content being worked on and shows assignments and content to review is very useful. The more streamlined the content creation experience, the more productive writers are.

Look for a solution that supports structured authoring. Writers and content strategists can identify areas of content reuse and create content in the solution that supports a reuse strategy. This will reduce the amount of content that is created and duplicated and allow writers to focus their efforts on creating quality content.

Also, writers may go through‌ many iterations of content development, which means content versioning and rollback are critical to track what has been changed and by whom.

Along with text-based content, documentation includes a lot of rich media, including screenshots, code snippets, images, videos, etc. These assets must also be managed in the software and require versioning to stay consistent and up-to-date with text-based content.

Content Organization and Tagging

When you create and manage your documentation content, you will need a way to organize it so others can find it easily. The software you choose should have taxonomies, and metadata management features that enable you to organize and tag your content. The ability to search for content is also essential, especially when following a reuse strategy.

Reporting is another feature to look for. You’ll want the ability to see how much content is being created and how much content, including assets, is being reused. Also important is the ability to see content that has been created but is not in any published documentation, enabling you to keep your repository updated and clean.

Collaboration and Workflow

Multiple technical writers often work on the same documentation set, so collaboration and workflow capabilities must exist to support teamwork. The documentation software must offer role-based access control, ensuring that team members only have access to the capabilities they need.

Customizable review and approval workflows are essential to match your review process. Additionally, commenting and feedback features allow reviewers to provide feedback on content under review or as it’s worked on. This is especially important for engineers and other SMEs who can then directly contribute content to the project.

Output Formats and Publishing

Gone are the days of producing documentation only as PDFs or printed materials packaged with software (especially considering most software today is cloud-based). The documentation software you select should provide multiple publishing options, both digital and printed. For example, if you publish content to a documentation portal or website, the software should support HTML5 and PDF publishing. If you send documentation to an application, then it needs to support help files.

The software should also be able to integrate with customer support solutions, like Zendesk or Salesforce Knowledge, ensuring support content is consistent across all applications. Finally, if you are creating documentation used for training, the software should support SCORM and other eLearning formats.

Support for Multiple Languages

If you produce documentation for a global audience, your documentation software must support multiple languages. This requires either internal translation capabilities or integration with translation service providers. You will need to ensure that translation management is included as part of the workflow process as well.

Look for a solution that matches translations with the original version. So, for example, if you change a section in the original language topic of your documentation, the translated version of the topic is marked to be updated.

You’re Ready to Select a Solution – Now What?

You’ve mapped out your process and researched potential solutions. What comes next? Selecting the best one for you. It’s important to remember that there is no best solution that works for everyone. There is the best solution that works for you and your needs.

To know what that solution is, requires you to consider a few things.

Involve Stakeholders in the Decision-Making Process

First, don’t go away and select your documentation software in a bubble. You need to involve all your key stakeholders in the decision-making process. Maybe they don’t need to be involved the entire time, but they definitely need to be part of the process. Talk to them about the current process and ask them what is working and what is not working for them. Ask them what they need the software to do (or not do). Show them demos of potential solutions and see what they think.

Consider Integration With Existing Tools and Systems

Make a list of systems where you want to publish your documentation, including support portals, websites, applications, etc. Identify if the potential solution can integrate with your other systems and how much effort is required to get each integration working. Look for out-of-the-box integrations, as they will be faster to implement.

Have a Training Strategy

Training users is critical to successful adoption, so make sure you plan early for how to train users on the new software, including identifying where the process may be changing and why. Ask about training courses and how they are offered.

You will also need to provide ongoing training and support, especially as your documentation teams get used to the new software, but also as you onboard new team members.

Should you opt for a CCMS like Paligo, you can get support importing legacy content and optimizing information architecture as you transition into the new service.

Plan for Scalability and Future Growth

When selecting your software, you know how much documentation you need to support. But you also need to ensure it will support future growth as you create and publish more documentation and publish to more channels. Ask how the software scales and what that means in terms of costs.

A Few Final Points

Here are a few final tips to keep in mind as you evaluate documentation software solutions:

  • Look for product tours or recorded demos of the overall solution and key features. You can watch these without involving the vendor and get a good feel for if the solution will meet your needs.
  • Once you have a set of solutions shortlisted, ask for a custom demo or a limited trial and implement one of your most important use cases. You may not implement the entire use case, but get a feel for how the solution works and ask lots of questions.
  • Check the vendor thoroughly, including their reputation, support options, and roadmap. Customer reviews on G2 are a great place to start, but also ask to speak with one or two customers directly and have specific questions to ask them.

Here’s something to consider as you go through this process. You have a fully defined process for creating documentation the way you do it today. But by implementing documentation software, your process may need to adjust, particularly if you shift from creating content in Word to a structured authoring process in a CCMS (which you really should be considering). Identify at the beginning where you need to fix your process and then you’ll be able to figure out where and how the software supports your improved process.

Choosing the right documentation software is pivotal for streamlining content creation, collaboration, and distribution. We’ve looked at various options, including key features and considerations, to ensure a seamless transition to a more efficient and effective process. The most important thing to remember is that you have to pick a solution that is right for you, so plan carefully, research widely, and ask plenty of questions. And consider adding Paligo to your list. We’d love to show you how it works to support your content creation and management process.