Tips for Selecting the Best User Documentation Software

June 6, 2024
image shows tech writer trying to decide on a documentation software

The traditional method for managing documentation—writing standalone documents—no longer works, especially when you have large amounts of documentation that you need to publish, translate, or have multiple writers working on. What you need is user documentation software.

User documentation software is an application or platform designed to create, manage, and distribute documentation to help end users use the software (or hardware). The documentation is a comprehensive guide to help users understand, use, and troubleshoot products effectively.

The options for user documentation software can be overwhelming. We’ve created this guide to cut to the chase and give you the information you need to make the best decision for your company and requirements. We’ll look at the options available and the most important capabilities. And we’ll outline the questions you need to consider and ask a software provider to ensure you select the tool that will drive efficiency in your documentation team.

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6 Key User Documentation Software Capabilities

Let’s kick things off by talking about the capabilities you should look for when evaluating user documentation software. There are many features and functionality, but the following six are the most important.

Content Creation Tools

Technical writers need tools to create a variety of documentation, including user manuals and guides, installation manuals, online help, knowledge bases, FAQs, tutorials and training materials, quick-start guides, standard operating procedures, and so on.

A lot goes into creating this content; it’s more than simply sitting down and writing, especially not technical content. Content creation tools must support text and media-based content (images, screenshots, video). Plus, you’ll need features such as version control to track changes, auditing (to show who worked on what content), and review and approval workflows.

Depending on your requirements, you may also need to reuse content across documents or create variants to support different brands or locales. The tools you use will need to support these complex requirements.

Collaboration Features

Multiple authors will often work on one document. Having a way to enable them to work at the same time on different sections is essential. Otherwise, the writing process slows dramatically because each writer waits for the other to finish their part. Here, again, features such as version control and auditing are essential.

Along with writing content, other people may be involved with content development. Subject matter experts need a way to review and comment on content a technical writer creates, editors need access to review and clean content, and others need a way to review, provide feedback, and approve content.

Multi-Format Publishing

Today, your customers need technical documentation in many formats, including print, PDF, HTML, e-books, and printed manuals. The requirements for each channel are very different, and the software you select should support the publishing channels you use today and in the future.

Customization and Branding

Along with the need to publish documentation across different channels, each channel will have a different look and feel. You need a way to create branded templates for each publishing channel. To ease the effort of managing multiple designs, you will want a way to outline brand guidelines and ensure your documentation aligns with those guidelines.

image shows man deciding on the best user documentation software

Search and Navigation

If you manage a lot of documentation, you need a way to search that content. Features such as keyword search, indexing, and a content tree view will help you find the content you need quickly.

Integration with Other Tools

To publish content to multiple channels, you need a way to get that content to those channels. Integration with other software and systems is vital to ease publication, including software such as LMS (learning management systems), help-desk systems, content delivery systems (e.g., Zoomin, FluidTopics), and other repositories (e.g., Git, AWS).

Feedback and Analytics

The solution you select should have features that enable users to give feedback or report issues with the documentation (this also applies to collaboration). Analytics and reporting help you track how documentation is created, how often it’s updated, commonly used features, what content is shared among documentation (we’ll discuss this later), and other important metrics.

The Tools That Help You Manage Documentation

You’re ready to start looking for user documentation software, but as you do, you’ll see many options to consider. Here, we’ll review the different options and discuss when you want to use each type.

Component Content Management Systems

Component content management systems (CCMS) are built for creating technical documents such as user manuals, product specifications, installation guides, and release notes. They support structured authoring, typically in XML or DITA, using easy-to-use content editors. Because content is structured and separated from how it’s formatted, CCMSs are the best choice if you want to reuse content across different documentation or publishing channels. Other common features include content linking, versioning, translation management, and collaboration.

Because CCMSs support structured authoring and content reuse, they enable single-source publishing. You can write your content once, store it in a central location, and then use it in different publishing formats and channels. For example, Paligo CCMS supports technical writers who need to create documentation published as PDFs, HTML5 help centers and portals, and knowledge base articles.

When producing content where consistency and accuracy are critical, CCMSs are the best option, especially if you take advantage of content reuse. Updating content for one document will automatically update the same content reused in other documentation, keeping all your content up-to-date and consistent.

When to use: Use a CCMS when your organization handles large volumes of technical documentation that require version control, workflow management, and collaboration among multiple authors and needs to be published to multiple channels.

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Help Authoring Tools

Help authoring tools (HAT), like Adobe RoboHelp, MadCap Flare, and ClickHelp, are another type of technical writing tool. HATs are ideal for smaller teams to create help documentation. These tools typically focus on ease of use and single-source publishing for help systems in formats like CHM, WebHelp, and PDF.

When to use: Use a Help Authoring tool when you need to create and manage help content for software applications, including context-sensitive help, user manuals, and knowledge bases. However, if you have complex content management requirements and are dealing with a large volume of documentation, a CCMS is a better option.

API Documentation Tools

Developers use API documentation tools to create and publish documentation for APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). Examples include Swagger, Apiary, Postman, and Slate. These tools automatically generate documentation from source code or annotations and provide clear and comprehensive information that helps developers understand how to use APIs effectively.

When to use: An API documentation tool is useful when you need high-quality, interactive documentation for complex APIs. This type of documentation is highly detailed, searchable, and includes code snippets as examples.

Documentation Generators

Documentation generators are similar to API documentation tools. These tools automatically generate documentation from source code comments and metadata and can also include code snippets. Examples of documentation generators include Doxygen (which supports C++, C, Python, and Java), Javadoc (Java), and Sphinx (Python and others). Depending on the tool you select, you can publish output in formats such as HTML, PDF, and Markdown and customize the documentation’s look and feel.

When to use: Documentation generators are helpful in software development as they save a lot of manual effort and keep the documentation in sync with the code (especially important for projects that change quickly). These tools are not meant to manage other types of documentation.

image shows man using structured authoring on computer

Content Management Systems (CMS)

Although primarily used for website content, content management systems (Web CMS) can be adapted for technical documentation. A Web CMS, like WordPress and Drupal, provides features for creating and managing content published on websites. However, they don’t support structured authoring or content reuse, so you are creating each document as a separate asset.

When to use: If you manage only a small amount of technical documentation and don’t plan to reuse content across documents, a Web CMS may make sense, especially if your primary publication channel is a website. However, if you expect your documentation to grow, have many authors who need to work on the same content, or expect to reuse content at some point, a CCMS is a better option. In addition, Web CMS do not support variants, locales, or brand differences.

Collaborative Document Tools

Document creation tools such as Google Docs and Office 365 support the creation of individual documents. They enable multiple technical writers to collaborate in real-time on documentation and provide basic commenting and versioning capabilities. However, they do not support structured authoring or content reuse, and publishing to multiple channels and in multiple formats requires manual effort.

There is also no separation of content from formatting, so if you need to publish a piece of documentation for more than one channel, you will need to create copies of the document, either by making a copy or downloading a copy and formatting it.

When to use: These tools may be a fine choice if you have a small team and work with only a few technical documents. However, they do not support an automated workflow process for reviews and approvals. If you want to reuse content, create connected translations, or manage a single version that can be published to different channels (HTML and PDF), these tools are not the best choice.

Markdown Editors

Markdown editors are specialized text editors that facilitate writing Markdown. Markdown is a lightweight markup language commonly used for creating formatted text using a plain text editor. The text is then converted to HTML and other formats, such as PDF and Word.

These editors are favored for their simplicity and efficiency in creating web-based content. They are ideal for writing README files, wikis, and online articles. Examples include Typora, Mark Text, StackEdit, and Dillinger.

When to use: If you are creating basic technical content such as README files and wiki content and want a simple editor that includes live previews and syntax highlighting, a Markdown editor may be the right choice. However, if you manage a lot of complex documentation published in different channels, have multiple writers who need to work on the same documentation, and want robust translation, versioning, and authoring capabilities, these tools are not for you.

Content Delivery Platforms

Content Delivery Platforms (CDPs) support the management and distribution of technical content. These platforms, including Zoomin and FluidTopics, enable organizations to deliver personalized, relevant, and context-aware documentation and help publish content to end users across channels such as web portals, mobile apps, and customer support systems. CDPs do not provide authoring tools but integrate with authoring tools and content management systems.

When to use: Use a content delivery platform when you are managing technical content in many locations and want a single place to integrate it and deliver it in a seamless experience to multiple channels like Salesforce, ServiceNow, and custom portals. Since it doesn’t provide authoring capabilities, you must ensure the platform you select integrates with your authoring tools.

Video Documentation Software

As user preferences shift towards visual learning, tools that facilitate the creation of video tutorials and demos are increasingly important. Software like Camtasia and ScreenFlow allows users to create high-quality instructional videos.

When to use: Video documentation software is perfect for creating video content and should be combined with text-based user documentation software. In this case, it’s not a decision of video or text; in most cases, it will be both. Look for the tool that best supports your video content creators.

As you can see, each type of user documentation software serves a different purpose and audience, ranging from software developers and technical writers to end users looking for self-help resources. The tool you select will depend on your specific documentation requirements, including the nature of the content, your end users, and the documentation formats you require.

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7 Things to Keep in Mind When Selecting the Right Tool(s)

We’ve examined the different types of user documentation software available and the key capabilities you’ll need to manage technical documentation. Now you’re ready to make a decision, right? Not quite. You need to map out your company’s specific requirements. To do that, ask these seven questions (and all the associated questions) as part of your review process. We suggest putting these questions in a spreadsheet and using them to document each potential software option.

What features does the documentation software offer?

Only you know what features you will need in your user documentation software. Make a list of the key features you need, such as text editing, formatting tools, multimedia support (for adding images, videos, etc.), version control, templates, and collaboration tools, and indicate how important each feature is for your team. Sharing examples of how you will use the software is helpful to a software provider, as it helps them understand how you will use their system.

How user-friendly is the software?

Some tools are intuitive and easy to use, while others are complex and have a steep learning curve. Ask for demos that walk through common use cases you have, and pay attention to the steps involved. Are there a lot? Is it hard to understand how to use the system? Are the steps different depending on the type of content you want to create? Is there a lot of setup every time you create a new documentation type? Is there automation that can help ease effort? What does the workflow process look like? How easy is it for reviewers to view the content and provide feedback? Is onboarding or training provided to new users? Make a list of all the questions you can think about on how you will use the software and learn how easy (or not) it is to do them.

Does the software support collaboration?

Many documentation projects involve multiple contributors, so features like comments and track changes are very important. Map out your process for working on documentation, including writing the content, requesting reviews, editing, and approval. Ask the software provider how their software supports your current processes.

You may find that your collaboration process could improve using software. Understand how it works generally to see how you might make your process more efficient. You may find that to be the most successful with a new tool, it might involve adapting your process to fit what the tool can do.

What output formats does the software support?

Map out the publishing channels and content formats you need to support your target audiences and customers. Do you publish print manuals, PDFs, customer portals, content delivery platforms, and other channels? Are you managing content you will use in courses and other training that you will need to publish to an LMS? Ask the software provider what formats it supports and how to publish in those formats.

image shows documentation team collaborating

Does the software support multiple languages and localization?

Do you publish your documentation in multiple languages? If yes, you need to ask if the software supports your process. Learn how content translation is done in the software and how the translations are managed. If you need to support localization within your documentation, find out how that works and how the publishing process supports variants and locales. Also, ask what translation management systems are supported and what the process is to move content to and from a TMS.

How well does it integrate with other tools?

Technical documentation is widely used across the customer journey; customers want access to technical documentation through knowledge bases, support portals, and customer support channels. It’s also used to create training content. Making your documentation available everywhere the customer wants is important, which means having an easy way to get that content to those channels.

Ask the software provider what tools they integrate with, such as content delivery platforms, knowledge base systems, CRMs, learning management systems, and translation management systems. You want to understand how they integrate and how easy it is to publish content to different channels or (in the case of translation management) how to get translated content out of and into your user documentation software.

Can it scale with the growth of a project or company?

As your organization grows, your documentation needs will expand. Your company may become part of an M&A event, and you’ll need to bring together documentation from different companies, or you may need to create versions of your documentation to support multiple brands. Planning and selecting a tool that can scale with you is crucial. Look for a scalable solution that can manage large amounts of content efficiently. Ask how to add new publishing channels or what’s involved in publishing variants of your documentation for different locales or brands.

A solution that supports you today and can quickly scale to support you in the future is preferred in terms of costs and implementation efforts over using one solution today and migrating to a more robust solution in a few years. There’s an opportunity cost associated with the time needed to migrate content from system to system; it may be prudent to go with a system that will scale with you, even if that involves paying more early on.

Ready to Implement? Keep These 3 Things in Mind

Okay, you’ve done your homework on user documentation software, learned the capabilities you need, investigated different tools, and are ready to choose.

Hold tight. Before you dive in and expect your team and collaborators to start using the tool, keep a few things in mind:

  1. Communication, as well as proper training and onboarding, is critical to any software selection process. Have a clear plan for how you will inform your team about the new software and how it will benefit them, and design an adoption plan that ensures your team can hit the ground running. You can often link your adoption plan with your chosen tool vendor’s onboarding they provide.
  2. To speed up adoption, involve your team in the entire process and give them a voice. After all, these people will live in the tool daily, so it must support their requirements. If you want the new tool to solve for pain points, you should consult the users who experience this pain firsthand.
  3. Promote organizational buy-in by working with key stakeholders and leaders within your organization to champion the software. Highlight success stories, ROI, and use cases demonstrating the software’s impact. This can build momentum and encourage wider adoption across teams. Focus on the wins from adopting the new tool, not the time and effort it will take to migrate content or adopt the tool.
  4. Make sure your team knows how to ask for help, including before, during, and after any onboarding activities. Ensure users can access responsive customer support for troubleshooting and guidance, including email, chat, phone, or a dedicated support portal. Ensure your selected solution provider has the support options you need, including self-service support.
  5. Be flexible and realistic. Even if there’s 100% feature parity between the old and new tool, there’s always going to be an adjustment period when using the new tool, even for your most experienced team members. Support your team and give them time to adjust to the new way of working. And be honest with your team about what your chosen tool can do and what it cannot.

Ultimately, the tool you select will depend on your specific requirements. We hope this guide can serve as a starting point in your selection process and offer you the information you need to define your requirements and make the best choice.

Get started with Paligo

Paligo is built to meet the most demanding requirements, with plans made for any company from the growing SMB to the large Enterprise.

Book a demo