The 2013 WritersUA Skills and Technologies Survey

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The use of technologies is a defining element in the identity of software user assistance professionals. Enhancing a product’s usability requires transforming our words and ideas into digital form using a variety of technologies. In our survey we provided a list of popular user assistance technologies and asked the respondents to value the importance of those technologies in their current development efforts.

The technologies we presented to the survey respondents are broad solution technologies as opposed to specific file formats. For example, Microsoft’s HTML Help provides a comprehensive solution to user assistance in the Windows environment, while HTML is a technology that gains value only when used in conjunction with a broader technology like HTML Help or browser-based Help. Our work with foundation technologies like HTML, XML, and JavaScript are dealt with specifically in the Skills section of the survey.

Support for manuals in the form of PDF (82%) is at the top of the list as the most valued technology component. Using PDF as a delivery format has become a staple in our documentation sets. PDF files can be delivered on an installation CD or via the Web. In the past, this technology was mainly used for legacy print documents like user guides, and also for supplemental white papers and troubleshooting information. Today we find many organizations using PDF files as the primary distribution format for product documentation.

The use of browser-based Help (73%) continues to be very popular with our respondents placing it second. The lure of displaying content in a web browser window seems to offer enough positive value for us to favor it over more feature-rich, platform-specific proprietary Help systems. This form of content delivery uses standard and non-standard Web technologies to deliver Help content through Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and other browsers. Implementation strategies run the gamut from using basic HTML pages to proprietary solutions, such as WebHelp and WebWorks Help, to complex renderings employing custom JavaScript and HTML5/CSS.

The World Wide Web (64%) continues to be a key element of our user assistance as evidenced by the strong showing in the survey. This includes content that is distributed through the public Internet and private intranets. Until recently, the Web was primarily used as a supplement to online Help and printed manuals. As we move increasingly toward Web-based applications and ubiquitous broadband Internet connections, server-side deployment of user assistance via the Web is becoming a hot topic in many tech pubs departments. So the Web is filling more than one role.

Traditional documentation components such as quick reference materials (57%), knowledge-bases (45%) are still valued highly by over half of respondents. Microsoft HTML Help (29%) and Paper-based manuals (22%) have significantly dropped in popularity.

Collaborative technologies like discussion Forums (27%), Wikis (29%), and Interactive Helpers (18%) have maintained the same level of popularity.


Detailed Results

Here is the complete list of skills presented in the survey. They are separate into functional groups. The percentages are of responses rating a technology as “Very Valuable” or “Invaluable”.

Microsoft Help Systems Table

System Response Percent
HTML Help 1.x (.chm) 29%
WinHelp (.hlp) 2%
Help 2.x for Visual Studio (.hxs) 5%
Help Viewer 1.0 for Visual Studio (.mshc) 2%


Other Help Systems Table

System Response Percent
Browser-based Help
(WebHelp or any HTML/XML-based Help content displayed in a browser)
Eclipse Help 6%
JavaHelp 6%
Oracle Help for Web 2%
Apple Help 3%
Oracle Help for Java 2%


Manuals (User, Admin, Installation, or Reference Guides) Table

Manual Response Percent
PDF manuals 82%
Print (distributed on paper) 23%
Epub 11%
Kindle 5%
iBook 4%
Mobi 2%
XPS 1%


Other Delivery Technologies Table

Technology Response Percent
World Wide Web or intranet content 64%
Quick reference (Reference cards, Getting Started guides, release notes, job aids) 57%
Multimedia tutorials (Video, Flash, simulations) 48%
Knowledge bases (web-based repositories for reference information) 45%
Forums (discussion groups, blogs, Twitter) 27%
Wikis 29%
Interactive helpers (wizards, troubleshooters) 18%
Social sites (Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, etc.) 10%
RSS feeds 8%


Other delivery technologies mentioned by respondents: Adobe AIR and proprietary solutions.

A number of respondents mentioned specific tools. We keep tools in a separate Tools Survey.