Everyone has Microsoft Word, so it’s not surprising that a lot of product documentation starts its life in Word.

However, as an organisation develops, so do its products. And, as with all other processes that support those products, the product documentation must evolve too.

The tools that may have served well initially reach their natural capacity, and it’s time to move on.

The limits of Microsoft Word for product documentation

Microsoft Word is good for short documents of (less than 30 pages) with a mix of image, text and tables. Word is easy to use, and to share content and collaborate with colleagues. But this ease of use becomes a weakness when producing larger documents (more than 30 pages).

The ability to manually tweak styles, copy and paste content from anywhere, embed images etc. creates bloated documents. This all makes large documents difficult to manage over one or two updates.

It becomes time consuming to maintain a document with more than 30 pages. Resolving manual formatting, fixing styles copied from other documents, or ensuring numbered list are correct.

Some estimate that the time spent on formatting a Word document can be as much as 30% of the total time spent on the document. That is more than a day and a half per week of non-value adding work that can be avoided by using an appropriate tool.

When is it time to move on from Word

The sooner you can move to an appropriate desktop publishing (DTP) tool, the better.

The time to move and the tool depend on your product documentation requirements. Therefore, it is important to have a clear product documentation strategy to inform your decision making.

There are no hard and fast rules of when to move away from Word, but here are some rules of thumb:

  • If a document is >30 pages
  • If your product has more than one document
  • If your product documents share common content
  • If a document needs to be translated
  • If you expect to update the document, for example, if there is a product update

How to migrate from Word

Most professional desktop publishing (DTP) tools, for example FrameMaker, Flare, AuthorIT, have an import wizard for Microsoft Word. These wizards work by mapping styles in the Word document to styles in the DTP tool.

Before you start importing the content of your Word documents to the new tool, there are a number of things to consider.

  • Your product document strategy
    It is important to have a clear strategy for your product documentation. Things to consider include how users will access content – web, mobile, print – and if the content needs to be translated.
    Understanding the objectives your product documentation must achieve from the outset will help you with all the remaining points.
  • The new authoring environment
    Understanding the objectives of your product documentation will help you choose the correct DTP tool. However, the DTP tool is only one part of the authoring environment.The authoring environment needs to support all processes and policies, for example, translation and review process, robust version control, and collaborative authoring.
  • The new template
    The import wizards provided by most DTP tools map styles in your Word document to styles in the new tool. Therefore, it is imperative to have those styles (the template) in place before importing any content.Importing the content before creating a template will recreate the same issues in a new tool, and make it impossible to achieve your objectives.
  • The original Word document
    Tidy up the original source document to make sure is uses styles correctly.The new template is likely to use new styles. However, it is best to focus on appying the correct styles to the main elements in the Word document (e.g. headings, body text, lists, and titles), and leave the other elements until after the import (e.g. in line character styles, image styles, table styles etc.)
  • Is this all necessary?
    If you have a lot of legacy documentation, does it all really need to be migrated? Look back at your objectives. If a document does not need to be migrated, for example, the product is end-of-life, then save yourself the time. Perhaps it is better to create a new document from scratch, but that is a different blog.

Conclusion

Microsoft Word is a good tool and does have its place. But if your product documentation strategy requires you to have quality content delivered across multiple platforms and updated regularly, then you need to look for a more suitable tool.

Dedicated Desktop Publishing tools can provide high quality, output with quicker turn-around times, and be more efficient and flexible.

To achieve these benefits, you need to define a clear product document strategy, and ensure you also have the tools and processes in place to support it.