The Hidden Power of Online Manual

Dennis Crane

Writing software manuals is boring, isn't it? We often think, "My software is easy to use. The user interface is intuitive. Why should I waste so much time writing documentation which nobody will read anyway?" Sometimes it's true. I've never read the WinZip or Internet Explorer manuals. Everything seems clear enough without further explanation. Nevertheless, even if your manual isn't being helpful to your software users, it may be helpful to you. Publish your help manual online and turn its hidden power into a real benefit for your business.

Online Manual Makes Your Web Site Visible

The user manual is a huge bunch of words, highly targeted words, which are specific for your software market. For instance, if you develop a database management system, its user guide will certainly contain such words as "database", "query", "transaction", "table", "record", and etc. On the other hand, people use these words in their queries when they are looking for a database management solution on Google, Yahoo, or other search engine web sites. Let the interested people find your web site and your product. Upload your manual on your web server and make it available for indexing by search engine spiders. This area-specific content will make your web site and your software more visible to potential customers. Making the user guide available online will increase your web site rank in relevant search results and will bring highly targeted traffic to your web site. Let the manual work not only for your users, but for you as well.

Online Manual Saves Your Time

A picture is worth a thousand words. Those who are engaged in user support know this for certain. When replying to user concerns, very often we have to write sentences like "Open the Document settings dialog. Choose the External modules tab. Select the 'ABC Spell Checker' in the module list. Enter your registration key and verification code in the corresponding text fields which will appear at the bottom of the window. Then, press Activate". If your application is simple the user will likely understand you and will do everything as you have explained. However, if your application is a complex system with lots of setting windows which behave differently in various modes, the user may be puzzled. Which window and which fields do you mean? In this case you risk getting into an unnecessarily long conversation by repeatedly explaining the same things again and again.

The screenshot could be a very helpful illustration of your explanation. You may run your application, go to a certain window, open that tab page and activate the corresponding item in the list. Then make the screenshot of the window by using the Alt+PrtSc key combination or another screen capture tool, save the picture in a file, and finally attach the file image to your message. Sometimes it's also necessary to add callouts, annotations and other enlightenments to the screenshot picture. Thus, you have to launch your image editor and manually draw all the elements required. As you can see, it may take up to half an hour to reply to only a single message! And how many messages are still in the queue?

Having the screenshots prepared in advance is a good approach which may save you time. But having screenshots already prepared together with callouts, explanations, and annotations is a great approach which will save you much more time. Most likely, you have everything prepared in your software manual but it's not very polite to reply to the user, "Please read that fantastic manual." Users may have no idea where the manual is on the PC and on what page they should look for their solution. On the other hand, you may also have no time to manually cut particular pages with screenshots and related instructions from the manual and attach them to each support message. The solution is easy. Put your manual on your web site in the form of HTML pages. Make all the pictures, screenshots with callouts, descriptions, and instructions accessible for every user and potential user. When you are processing another support request, simply insert an URL link to the appropriate page of your online manual and add a few clarifying remarks - more words and pictures are already on that page. You will save much time and nerves because you will be sure that the user is looking at the same thing you are describing. At the same time, the user will get a fast solution which is supported by clear pictures and neat instructions.

Online Manual Makes Your Products Trustworthy

Besides the users getting faster and more helpful support, they also see that you finished this tedious job writing the handy and well-structured manual with great screenshots and clear explanations. They know that this job is boring and developers don't like to do it. Therefore, if you did it and if you did it perfectly, it means that you respect your customers, not only their money. A good manual means that you consider your business and product seriously. This helps your business to look more credible and serious. So, make your manual available online and prove your respect to your existing and prospective users. Allow them to trust you and your product before they even download a demo copy.

Online Manual Brings Sales

As we have seen, the software manual which is a part of your web site generates a targeted traffic. People may more easily find your product because online help makes your web site more visible in relevant search results from the search engines. Those new visitors get more loyal when they see a well done help system. Also, if a prospect experiences difficulties with your software and asks for technical support, you may easily resolve the issue by referring them to a certain page of your online help. With just a click the user will see screenshots and explanations which will help them to settle the case. So, you have a motivated and targeted visitor, who feels loyal to your company and products, and whom you can easily help in case of a technical problem. The probability of such a visitor ordering a license is several times higher than otherwise.

Don't miss these prospects. Don't lose the sales. Make your help manual a part of your web site and start receiving new sales.

Dennis Crane, the author of the Dr.Explain software, specializes in help authoring software development. He is online at

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