Do you have training manual content you print for offline use and you would like to now take that online? Do you want to reuse it and publish to multiple formats including those online? Let me share my experiences with you.
To future proof your training manuals and make the content reusable you can use single sourcing software. You develop your content once and then you can publish it in many formats like HTML5 web pages, ePubs or eBooks, PDF, Word and any other formats that may come in the future.
I have done personal research on the products and trialed them all as well as attended Madcap Flare Training and Author-IT Cloud training. I have spent many years using these software packages creating training manuals and I am happy to share my experiences with you.
Single Sourcing Documentation Software
Whether you currently have training manuals in MS Word, Adobe Acrobat or even Publisher it is important to think about how you digitize that material for use in the future. Bringing your content across into a Single sourcing tool enables you to keep your content and drop it in any current format and for any future format.
This means that as the industry changes you can change with it. this could be something as simple as lowering the cost of your training by the printing and shipping costs. To do this you could change your content into HTML5 or eBook format or even protected PDF using an Adobe Online Licensing server.
Most of the single sourcing tools allow you to create text snippets that allow you to store text that you use throughout your training manual in one place. This may be the safety blocks you use for delivering content in the USA or something that you need to remind your readers in multiple places throughout your training manual. This could also be something you could reuse in multiple training manuals as well.
Multiple Output Formats
All of the single sourcing documentation tools allow you to output your content. These are both online and offline formats that is one of the main features of single sourcing software. It also means that in the future if another type of output becomes popular then the software will be updated with this output format as well.
Types of output format are:
- PDF – Adobe PDF file for the printer
- MS Word – Standard Microsoft Office Document
- HTML5 – Web Page Help style format
- CHM – Compiled HTML or standard windows help
- ePub – Suitable for eBook readers
With each of these output formats you have the ability to change settings as to how you want them published. In a PDF training manual you may want every new Chapter or Module to start on the right hand side of the manual and to include page numbers. For HTML5 content you may want a built in search and hyperlinks.
Develop in Neutral Format
Most of the software products let you develop in a neutral format like XML with CSS or their own plain text with text formatting labels. This style of development all depends on whether they use a WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get) style editor. If they do then it does not matter how it is saved under the hood.
If they use XML and CSS which is the most used format then knowing a little about both of these will help when you want to do something tricky. To learn more about them both you can check out the W3 schools training website here.
Link : W3 Schools Website
Multiple User Development
One of the nicest features of most of the tools is the ability to have multiple users developing on the same content at the same time. To do this you may have to have it in version Control that we will talk more about below. Or alternatively just have the source files on a shared network drive.
The ability to have multiple people working on the training manual or other documentation just means you can make it quicker. It also means you have someone reviewing the content at the same time as someone is developing the content.
This will literally save your life when developing content. The ability to create versions of your content and be able to roll back or re publish old content from one source is great. It also means if someone makes mistakes you can roll back those changes quickly and easily.
While none of the products include their own version control they link to the industry standard ones that you probably already have in your organisation.
Examples of Version Management software are:
- Apache Subversion
- Azure Team Ops (fna Microsoft Team Foundation Server)
- Git – Open Source
- CVS – Concurrent Versioning System
It is ok if you don’t know how to install one of these as your IT department can do it for you. Alternately there are plenty of tutorials on Youtube that can show you how.
Then setting them up in your single sourcing tool is just a matter of filling out the server details and your log in details and you are done. Then you can check in and check out content whenever you need too.
We mentioned content formatting above and now we can talk a little more about it. Cascading Style Sheets is the most common way to format your content. This allows you to keep your formatting separate to your content which is important when single sourcing.
Having your CSS separate from your content means that for each style of output you can change the complete look and feel just by updating a single file. If your headings need to be different when producing HTML5 versus a PDF file then this is where you can do this.
Some of the tools don’t use CSS and have opted with a template or skin style approach with is basically the same as using CSS and under the hood is most likely CSS anyway.
Creating Table of Contents
No matter what type of content you are publishing you will need a Table of Contents of some description. You can make a simple table of contents in most of the single sourcing tools that can be displayed separately depending on the output type. This also acts as a way of structuring your content and a way to bring your content together in different ways for different audiences.
For one audience you could have the full material for your technical audiences and for your non technical audiences just an overview of the topics. And then when you publish the table of contents selects the content to be published from all of the content available.
When you are creating your content sometimes you want a particular section reviewed by a technical expert or for legal sign off. When you need to do this you can either set up a limited access user or with some of the tools you can email off requests for feedback. This goes to the user as an email or an email with a file attachment where they can use a cut down version of the software or a web page to review the content.
This speeds up the development time as the core content creator can rope in and automatically send out for review the content and move on. Once the reviewed content comes back it can be integrated into the documentation straight away or be flagged by review with the core content developer.
The inclusion of multi media content that can be optionally shown whether the content produced is in digital format means a much richer document or training manual. This also sets us up for future proofing our content to build into eLearning or for web help versions of our training manuals.
Sometimes you want to have sections of code that are in one output format like HTML5 and not in your Word or PDF versions or the other way around. This ability to have optional sections of content depending on the type of published content means that most of your content can remain the same. But your hyperlinks in your HTML5 content don’t appear in your other published content.
With all of the tools you can place links in your content to other parts of your content which is extremely useful. If you are creating HTML5 content you will created “See Also” sections that you will link to more information on a topic. In printed content you could link to a Glossary where instead of a Hyperlink it provides a page number.
The ability to not only put content in but to mark certain content with description flags for indexes and search parameters means you are again future proofing your content. Meta Data is basically data describing other data like the example above.
This is a way of making our content more interactive and easier to understand and navigate especially when the content is large in nature. People are used to searching on the web with Google and other search engines and this means you can bring the same features to your published content as well.
Understanding whether the content looks good on desktop, tablet and mobiles is very important with over 60% of people using their mobile phones now. While making sure it looks good on traditional desktop computers it is also important to make sure your published content looks good and is capable of going to mobile devices as well.
When you are creating your content if you are creating global content it is important to see if the tool allows for translation or whether there are translation services available. Madcap offers translation services but it is not really build into the product where Help and Manual does this. There are ways to do this in each product but it is important to understand if it is a work around or native to the product.
The undisputed market leader in the field at the writing of this article due to its features and ease of use. But with being the market leader they come with the price tag to match. They have in the last couple of years made it even more expensive by forcing you to not only but the one off license or monthly license but including support as well.
When I asked them if I could have the software without the support the answer was a resounding NO. This seems like a money making scheme to me but if you are using the product for the first time then you may well need the support.
The support did also mean that you got free upgrades to the product if they version was released while you were in support. Personally I don’t always buy every upgrade and have been known to skip a version as I am too busy creating content to upgrade all the time. And also it saves money and means for the same upgrade price I get twice the features by skipping a version. Especially if there is nothing in that version I am dying to use.
I found Author_IT cloud to be way over priced even compared to Madcap Flare. On top of that you could not work on your content offline as I would often do when in an airport or on the move. The user interface was a bit clunky and it seemed that most of the simple tasks like even page numbering and right page for each new chapter needed to be scripted.
Having done training on both Madcap and Author-IT cloud I would much prefer and did use Mad Flare instead.
A much cheaper solution to the main two above and having come from merely creating help documentation has now expanded into single sourcing. There is a free version for personal use but you have to pay for commercial use. They don’t have the features yet of Flare but are catching up quickly and at a quarter of the price at the writing of this article is well worth looking at.
Why I haven’t used this commercially is because of two main reasons. Firstly it is a little clunky on the front end and not as polished as some of the other tools. And secondly it does not do version control which is essential when working with multiple content developers and even just on your own.
Help & Manual
Another product that has come from initially starting its life as help documentation only and grown to a single sourcing tool. This is a great entry level product with multi user, version control and a perpetual license for under half the cost of Madcap Flare at the writing of this article. The user interface is easy to use and you will see many new features coming out for it as it catches up.
While I would not suggest this for non technical people it is worth mentioning as an open source alternative. You will see from the front page that you have to download it from version control which tells you a lot about where the product is at and that means more technical and early stages. Go and have a look at a video on it on Youtube but then move on.
Once independent this product was bought by Adobe and was a market leader back in the day for technical help documentation. They had kind of lost their way before being bought by Adobe and had lost heaps of market share.
Adobe has now upgraded the product and is working on catching up to Madcap Flare. They are charging the same price of around $2000 USD for a perpetual license so it is worth downloading both of their trials before you commit to one or the other. They do offer a cheaper $44/Month licence at the writing of this article but got and check the pricing on their website for more information.
While this was originally a product for print only media they are starting to move into the single sourcing documentation as well. There is a lot of overlap between Robocopy and Framemaker now and I can foresee one fo them disappearing in the near future.
Frame maker while it has a rich feature set seems to take longer to develop content and publish as a traditional tool that the others. It does have a high price as well and it also is playing catch up after missing the ball on single sourcing early on.
Generally preferred by older content developers that started in print only media.
Oxygen XML Editor
A tool that is not as feature rich as the main players but trying to charge the same as them. You don’t get all output formats just one output format for the same price as multiple output formats with the rest of the tools.
After trialing their products and comparing them to the others on the market I think they have to review their pricing and feature set to be even considered.
When deciding what product to get it is important especially in your first year with the tool when you are migrating your content just what support they offer. You need phone level instant support for critical issues and email support for things that can wait.
I have found this critical when getting my team to adopt new tools and it saved me a lot of time on the phone with them. I even had the staff request the continuing of the support contract after the first year as it was helping them be more productive.
Don’t forget to include this in your price comparison.
There are two basic pricing models used for all of these tools and they are either a monthly subscription or a perpetual license. Lets discuss the differences between the two.
The monthly subscription is where all the software suppliers are trying to push everyone even though you are normally locked in or get a discount for a year. Check whether the support is included in this cost. As a manager it is much easier to get a one time sign off and pay for the year or two up front but for individual users the monthly subscription works well. Typically the version upgrades are included to entice you to take the subscription model so ask if they are.
Call me old school but I like this option more even though it costs more sometimes. The reason is that you don’t have to pay them any more money and you can get a yearly support contract on top. It also means I can skip a version or two if this version does everything I need until there is a dire need to upgrade. You still need to do your sums and see what is better for you and your business.
Due to the nature of single sourcing tools you will generally get the training in a document style format or web help. Most of the market leaders have video training for free on their website or with a log in once you purchase.
Be sure you ask for whether the training is included or if there is an extra cost. You can most likely get a discount off instructor led training and the video based eLearning is normally free.
Be sure to check amazon and the web for printed training manuals as well as for third parties providing the training that may be closer to you.
Cost of Changing
This is the biggest reason for being careful with who you chose to go with because once you have selected a tool changing can cost time and money. You have to output in a format that the next tool can import and then generally means a published format. Be sure to trail the software prior to handing over your money.
Now that you know about single sourcing tools and how they can allow you to create once and output in many formats in a way that promotes reuse. How about looking at the next step and getting a basic overview of eLearning which is where you will likely go next.