Documentation Tools: How to Find Easy-to-Use Solutions

March 25, 2024
image shows woman using a documentation tool

Documentation tools should make it easier to create technical documentation – but what are the key features you should look for when selecting a tool based on ease of use? This guide presents the main features of easy-to-use documentation tools and what you should avoid.

Why is ease of use so important in documentation tools? One reason is that you want a tool that helps technical writers create documentation faster. If they have to spend a lot of time setting up and maintaining the tool, or each step of the documentation process is too complicated, then the tool probably isn’t speeding up production.

Another reason why ease of use is so important is that creating technical documentation usually involves people outside your technical writing team. These could be reviewers, subject matter experts, legal teams, product owners, and others. If these users can’t easily use the documentation tool, then you’re also probably not saving time, since you often need to share the documentation with them in another format, then add it back to the tool later.

The Importance of Efficient Documentation Tools

Documentation tools aren’t just about saving time, although that is a big benefit. Companies often start looking for documentation tools because their documentation is out of date, difficult to find, not standardized across the organization, or hard to customize. This can lead to several problems, including incorrect documentation, poor customer service, lack of compliance with regulations, or inconsistent internal procedures.

Documentation tools solve this by enabling you to manage all documentation in one place and use features that increase consistency. Here are some of the main uses and benefits of documentation tools:

  • Writing documentation more efficiently
  • Collaborating more effectively
  • Publishing documentation in different formats
  • Easily reusing the same content
  • Quickly customizing documentation
  • Managing translations and localizations.

When selecting a documentation tool, you need to evaluate how well the tool addresses the above needs and how easy it is to use the tool’s features.

Challenges of Traditional Documentation Processes

One of the main objectives of using documentation tools is to simplify writing documentation. If your company has a small amount of documentation, this could be accomplished using word processing software, such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Even with individual documents, however, this approach is inefficient in several ways. Once a technical writer creates the document, it usually needs to be reviewed. Sometimes this involves converting the document to a PDF and sharing it with several stakeholders. Once they review the document, the changes need to be put back into the original document – with no traceability of who changed what.

After this, the document needs to be published, either online or laid out with a design tool. Once the document is published, it can be difficult to make consistent updates to the document, since you might need to do the entire process all over again. And all of this is usually managed with a project management tool that can require manual notifications and updates.

This traditional documentation process becomes much harder to manage as documentation scales. For example, if you need to create multiple versions of the documentation for different products, audiences or regions, or if you need to customize the documentation for specific customers. Companies often try to solve this by creating each document from scratch or copying and pasting relevant sections. All of this leads to wasted time and inconsistencies in the documentation.

image shows documentation team collaborating

Speeding Up the Process with One Documentation Tool

A more efficient approach is to use a documentation tool that centralizes all content and uses structured authoring. Structured authoring is based on predefined rules, separate from layout, which enables you to quickly create consistent documentation. For example, if you are writing documentation about a procedure, each procedure would need to have a title section followed by a section on steps.

These types of documentation tools are also usually based on topic-based authoring, which means that each component or topic in the documentation is separate from the whole. You create documentation by adding existing components from a file system, in the case of a help authoring tool (HAT), or a database, in the case of a component content management system (CCMS). You can also create new components using a built-in editor.

A component could be a headline, for example, or it could be a paragraph summarizing what a product does. This process helps increase consistency across your documentation and makes it easier to reuse content.

Documentation Tools That Simplify Structured Authoring

When it comes to ease of use, there are a few things to consider when selecting a documentation tool for structured authoring. One is how easy it is to set up your underlying structure and keep it consistent. In a HAT tool, which is usually based on HTML, it can take more time to set up the structure. HTML is a more open form and often leads to inconsistent approaches to how content is used. This can result in wasted time and inconsistencies across your documentation.

A CCMS, on the other hand, is usually based on XML and has a more standardized structure, meaning you can get started with it faster as the team can establish set rules that all authors must follow. XML provides more guidance, making it easier to establish those standards. A HAT tool, on the other hand, requires more manual work in linking all the components together.

If you’re considering XML-based documentation tools, another factor to consider is how easy it is to use the authoring environment. Do writers need to understand complex XML concepts and processes, or does the tool provide a user-friendly interface that hides the XML model unless they need it? This can be a critical difference that determines whether the tool is widely adopted by users.

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Faster Customization with One Documentation Tool

One of the main reasons companies choose documentation tools is to be able to quickly create multiple versions of similar documentation. Using a traditional documentation process, this can be incredibly time consuming, involving manually creating or updating each document over and over.

For example, if a company makes an update to just one feature, if that feature is used across multiple products, a documentation team will need to manually replace descriptions of the feature in the documentation for each product. This takes time and can lead to errors and inconsistencies.

With documentation tools like a CCMS, however, authors can quickly search for all mentions of the feature in a database, change the description in one, central location, then automatically update the description everywhere it is used.

Since a CCMS also separates content from layout, any customizations you make can be quickly published in a variety of formats, such as PDFs and HTML5 files for online publishing.

Using Documentation Tools for Better Collaboration

When a company is considering ease of use in a documentation tool, the tool’s capabilities for collaboration and reviewing are often one of their top concerns. If reviewers can’t easily access or understand the documentation tool, then the tool isn’t serving its purpose of saving time and increasing consistency.

Here’s a few important questions to consider about collaboration. Does the documentation tool:

  • Need to be downloaded by each user, adding an extra level of complexity, or is the tool cloud-based and accessible to anyone with login credentials?
  • Enable users to work on different parts of a document at the same time, helping to save time, or does the entire document become locked once one person starts to review it?
  • Allow multiple users to edit the same component at the same time, which later needs to be resolved, or can only one person edit a component at a time?
  • Provide a full audit trail of what has been changed and by who?
  • Have a dashboard that makes it easy to see where you are in the review process?
  • Does the tool include release management at a component level?

Investigating these questions should give you a good idea of how easy and effective the tool is for collaboration.

image shows technical writers looking over their platform

Real-Life Examples of the Benefits of Documentation Tools

Jenzabar, which provides software solutions for higher education, was using a help authoring tool to create online help content. As the company grew, they found the tool needed customized scripts to work in their environment, and the content reuse features were not syncing across projects. All stakeholders couldn’t access the documentation tool, which meant transferring content to Word then pasting changes back in, leading to formatting issues.

When the company switched to Paligo CCMS, they could build projects faster and collaborate more effectively.

“Our previous build times for the products we migrated to Paligo went from half a day to 10-15 minutes,” said Scottie Gearing, Senior Technical Writer & Team Lead at Jenzabar. “The review features also let our PMs and SMEs evaluate and comment on our work directly from Paligo, another time-saving collaboration feature.”

SentinelOne, a provider of an advanced AI-powered cybersecurity platform, was creating technical documentation by turning Google Docs into PDFs, which made it difficult to search for content, collaborate on projects and publish to Zendesk. The documentation team also spent too much time creating customized documents for sales.

After the company selected Paligo CCMS, they could quickly collaborate on and customize documentation with one tool.

“Now that everyone on the team is contributing, the doc sprints take an hour instead of a week,” said Rochelle Fisher, Director of Knowledge and Technical Writing at SentinelOne. “Now they can comment directly in the source. They don’t have to worry about which file to send back and forth.”

Explore the User-Friendly Features of Paligo CCMS

If you’re looking for a documentation tool that is easy to use and makes your team more productive, explore some of the key features of Paligo CCMS. Or if you would like to see how Paligo can help you overcome your documentation challenges, request a demo.