5.4 Why your documentation needs to be online - not locked in a PDF or Word file

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A lot of organizations deliver their documentation as PDF or Word files. If you are only using PDF and Word files for your documentation, then you are making a big mistake that is impacting the usage of your documentation and probably hurting the efficiency of your business.

In this article we will regularly refer to PDFs, but what applies to PDFs also applies to Word files, PowerPoint, etc.

PDFs - The good and the bad

PDFs are good because:

  • They can be viewed on many devices
  • They can be read without the need for an internet connection (once they are downloaded)
  • Everyone knows how to use a PDF

PDFs are bad because:

  • They are hard to keep up to date. If someone downloads a PDF from your website and you later update that PDF with new information, it is impossible to update the downloaded copy. The customer has to re-download the PDF and they have to know that they need to re-download the PDF.  This makes it very difficult to make sure your customers have the latest and most accurate information.
  • They are hard to find. A lot of companies store their manuals as PDFs on their company intranet. When the time comes that someone actually needs to use them they can never remember where to find them. If your employees or customers can't find your documentation then you may as well have never written it.
  • You assume people are going to read them. And you are wrong. Remember, people don't read documentation - they reference it when they get stuck. And PDFs are designed to be read, not referenced.

In a nutshell, PDFs have a lot of great qualities. But for documentation purposes, it's not the best tool to use.

Why your documentation needs to be online

Remember, the purpose of writing documentation is so that people will use it, and people will use it if it's easy to access in their time of need. By putting your documentation online, you make it easier for your customers and employees to  reference it when they get stuck.

Here are some of the major benefits of having your documentation online:

  • Instant access - No files to download. If your documentation is online, your customer or employee can click a link and have all of your articles right in front of them. No more hunting around on a file server, looking for the latest version of the soft copy.
  • Searchability - Searching online documentation is much easier than searching a PDF.
  • Unique URLs - When you deliver a PDF it is one giant document. A documentation site can consist of many unique pages or articles, and each page has its own URL. This means that when someone asks you a question, you can point them directly to the answer. This is really, really important if you want your documentation to make an impact on your business. Read more about how to organize your documentation so that it can be used this way
  • Keeping things up to date - Keeping a website up to date is so much easier than keeping a PDF file up to date. When you customers view your documentation online you always know that they have the latest information.
  • Don't worry about finishing - A PDF file has to be "finished" before you can deliver it. So even though you have a lot of articles completed, if the manual isn't finished then those articles won't be available. If your documentation is online, you can create your documentation in small chunks and deliver it to your customers/employees as it's created. You never have to worry about completely "finishing" your documentation.

The best of both worlds

A great option is to put all of your documentation online and then give your customers and option to download your documentation as a PDF version. That is one of the reasons that we built PDF and online documentation into our own knowledge base system, ScreenSteps Live.

Put your documentation online if you want results

If you really want results from your documentation, then it needs to be online. Whether you are hoping to decrease customer support requests or increase employee productivity, locking it up in a PDF or Word file simply won't give you the business results you are looking for. Put it online.

Previous Article 5.3 Evaluating the cost of a documentation system
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