As a software developer I find that when I am working on a project the documentation for how to use the application I'm developing is usually left to the last moment. This is a tragedy, as it is essential to write high quality user documentation if the end users are to get the most out of the documentation.

End User Documentation Tools

Writing documentation is boring and laborious. If you're creating a Windows or Mac desktop application then there could be dozens of application screens and widgets on each screen that need documenting. Although development environments such as Visual Basic 6.0 and Visual Studio allow small tooltip help text to be assigned to buttons and other widgets, there's no escaping the fact that users love printed documentation with their software. I know that when I buy a new camera I'm always really pleased if the camera comes with a printed manual made out of dead trees rather than a few Adobe Acrobat PDF files on a CD.

There are quite a number of end user documentation tools available. Two of the most popular are RoboHelp and Doc-To-Help. RoboHelp is very widely used and is the closest thing to an industry standard for writing end user documentation.

Most end user documentation tools will automate the process of creating end user documentation in different formats. While software documentation used to take the basis of a printed manual, now you can also create Adobe Acrobat PDF files, online help, wikis, HTML Help, FAQs, Intranet help documents and all other kinds of documentation. A good end user documentation tool will streamline the process of creating documentation in so many formats. Many of the best tools also allow documentation to be produced for different audiences, so you could create different documentation for novice users as well as power users.

If your Windows application is small or you don't have a budget for end user documentation tools then a free alternative is to use the HTML Help Workshop. This is a free download from Microsoft's website. It's pretty basic, but it allows you to bundle up a load of HTML files into a single .chm Windows HTML Help File. The nice thing about the HTML Help Workshop is that it allows you to create a tree-view of your documentation, plus an index and a search facility. On the downside, the HTML Help Workshop can be difficult to use if you want to add more advanced features. It also crashes on some HTML and it can be extremely difficult to find out what HTML it doesn't like.

When creating end user documentation don't forget to use the new media available these days. Online video help is tremendously popular, so this could be one way of showing users how to use your software product. There are all kinds of software tools available for producing animated walk-throughs of software demonstrations - the Camtasia screen recording software is the market leader, but there are alternatives to suit any budget.

Documentation Authors

If you really hate writing documentation then another alternative is to outsource it! Technical authors and writers are dedicated specialists who love writing documentation. There are plenty of companies who offer this service - finding a freelance technical author is another alternative.

Getting a professional writer to write your user documentation is highly recommended.

Good luck with your documentation project, and remember that writing end user documentation doesn't have to be boring!