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Anybody know of any best or standard practices for creating help files/guide for software for the help of the end user?

This is a software that has many features and options where the user would need to see how to utilize these features and access them to implement.

Any help or direction with this would be appreciated.

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3 Answers

Depending on the complexity of your software and your user audience, it might be necessary to offer help in a variety of ways.

  1. The first is to make sure that your workflows are intuitive. More work put into this will result in fewer people needing help, and happier users.
  2. Inline help next to form fields where people might be tripped up.
  3. A dedicated help section with tutorials and/or a glossary. You could also offer links on application pages to corresponding tutorials.
  4. If your user community is large and active, you might consider using a forum where they can help each other.

As far as how to present the help, this depends on the location. Inline help should be short and sweet, while the tutorial sections should be more in-depth.

Videos are very helpful, but try to keep them short and limited to performing a certain action or learning a specific concept.

Some people like to print out instructions, so make sure to have text as well.

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Videos. Yes, thorough and searchable text-based documentation is important too but for complicated software videos are very, very useful. In some cases you'll be able to use the same videos to market your product on your website, YouTube, Facebook, etc.

To make these videos I would recommend Screenflow if you're on Mac: http://www.telestream.net/screen-flow/overview.htm

Screencast-o-matic is also a decent program that is universal (and Free!): http://www.screencast-o-matic.com/

One of the most common (and best ways, in my opinion) to implement help is to have a question mark at the top corner of each screen. Clicking it will bring up context sensitive documentation (help info for the screen you are viewing), but also include a list of other related topics on the left. Put a search bar on the top of the list, and you are good to go.

As Ben suggested, inline help is also good. But use it sparingly, otherwise you will clutter your interface, and if you overuse it then users will tend to ignore it. A good use for inline help would be a field label that might need some additional explanation.

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Here's my general plan when I approach Help for a new product:

  1. Identify goals and special requirements. Can include: available in three different languages, available offline as CHM, etc.
  2. Create a content strategy. This includes how I'll organize the information (such as by feature or by task) and a style guide for the content itself (sense of humor, lots of screenshots, etc).
  3. Pick a tool. Use the two steps above to evaluate the various tool options.

I wrote about this approach in detail in this blog post.

I also like to look at other software products and consider what does or does not work well in their Help. I've written a few posts about my findings:

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