5 reasons why you shouldn’t manage your technical documentation in Word

Is Word really the right tool? Can a word-processing program fulfil the requirements for creating and managing your technical documentation? You probably already have a vague feeling that it can’t. Otherwise, you wouldn't be here. 

And you'd be right to wonder. Word-processing programs like Microsoft Word are powerful tools for a variety of tasks – unfortunately, creating and managing your technical documentation is not one of them. 

In this article, we discuss five reasons why you shouldn’t manage your technical documentation in Word and suggest some better alternatives that will save you time and money, not to mention stress. 


The 5 main disadvantages of MS Word for technical documentation (TD)  

1. Laborious version control 

Also known as versioning, accurate version control is one of the key requirements for technical documentation. Product and software manufacturers have a legal obligation to ensure a version control system is in place. They need to record and be able to track every product change. 

Word-processing programs such as Microsoft Word don't adequately meet these requirements. It is theoretically possible to set up version control in the cloud version of Word, but this rarely works in practice. File-storage processes and standards must be defined and implemented. But the more complicated a system, the more prone it is to errors. Can you ensure that everyone involved has the discipline needed to stick to the established file storage procedures? If this cannot be guaranteed, a far better option is to choose software specifically designed for this application scenario, as this will prevent errors, and their consequences, from the very outset. 

2. Unrestricted file access 

Do you really know who has access to your technical documentation? Is it everyone in the company? Just a specific group? What about the trainee? Are all these users allowed to make changes or even delete files? 

Even if your technical documentation is stored in the cloud, it's often possible for an employee to download the file, edit it, and then upload it again. This will also lead to problems with change tracking and version control.

3. Risk of data loss 

Unrestricted file access and a lack of user rights management, as outlined above, also increase the likelihood of data loss. It's very easy to delete or accidentally move a file or folder to another folder, for it never to be seen again. 

4. Inconsistencies in style and layout 

The numerous formatting options in word-processing programs are one of their most helpful and popular features. Users can customise the text size, font, line spacing, and much more besides. 

However, when it comes to the creation and management of your technical documentation, there's no room for users’ personal preferences. 

Why not? The Machinery Directive (2006/42/EC), for example, stipulates that signal words referring to safety risks in user manuals, such as DANGER, WARNING, or CAUTION, must always be written in capital letters and without exclamation marks. 

Your technical writer is familiar with these standards and guidelines, but it's possible that a different user, who perhaps changes this formatting according to their own preferences, is not. This situation can be avoided by using a tool that has been designed precisely for this purpose and which automatically suggests the correct formatting to authors, as in the case of the signal words mentioned above.   

Your technical documentation also reflects your company’s branding. You should therefore ensure that team members cannot dilute the look and feel of your documents.

5. Layout and formatting issues post-translation 

Manufacturers who wish to sell their products abroad must translate their technical documentation into the target language of the countries in question. 

A translated Word file can quickly turn into a nightmare for the DTP Team creating the layout. This is particularly true if the source text has been poorly formatted and paragraphs have been indented with tabs or spaces, for instance. 

Your text will vary in length, depending on the language. The English version will probably be shorter than the German, while the Spanish will tend to be longer. In this case, the translation will shift the entire layout and your DTP specialists will need to spend a lot of time manually formatting each separate document. 

Fortunately, there are now some great alternatives for creating and managing your technical documents. Read on to find out more.

The advantages of Content Management Systems (CMS) 

A Content Management System (CMS) for technical documentation, not to be confused with website CMS, is database-driven software in which content is created, edited and managed collaboratively. Content modules are created once and can then be reused as needed. 

A CMS is far superior to a word-processing program and offers manufacturers and technical writers a wide range of benefits:

  • A single source of truth: Centralised data storage ensures that all authorised users have access to the same, up-to-date dataset. This avoids redundant or duplicate datasets.  

  • Versioning: Any data changes are saved in the CMS history and can even be undone if necessary. 

  • Different access rights: In a CMS, users can be assigned different roles with different permissions, such as administrator, editor or reader. This increases file security. 

  • Fewer sources of error: Reusing content that has been created and reviewed once reduces the chance of errors. 

  • Compilation of documents using individual modules: The modules can be put together like pieces in a jigsaw, making the creation of similar documents, such as product updates, a breeze. 

  • Publication in a range of target formats: Content in a CMS can be published as a PDF, as online help or even as a chatbot

Using a CMS can bring a range of great benefits. But, as the amount of content and number of technical illustrations and languages increase, these solutions reach their limits. So, what’s the answer? Component Content Management Systems (CCMS).

Component Content Management Systems (CCMS)  

What are Component Content Management Systems (CCMS)? 

A Component Content Management System (CCMS) is a Content Management System which manages content at the component level, rather than the document level. Components are small information modules, such as a single illustration, a table or a product description, which can be combined and reused in any way. 

The advantages of a Component Content Management System 

Let’s explain the benefits of a CCMS by considering a practical example. Imagine you're a German coffee machine manufacturer and you have two almost identical models – one with and one without a milk frother – which you want to sell in ten European countries. 

In a CCMS, each content module only needs to be created once. In other words, as the manufacturer, you simply write one general user manual for both models. The only sections that need to be separately created are those places where there are differences between the models, such as the product illustrations, delivery information and the instructions for using and maintaining the milk frother. 

In this way, both user manuals can be translated with minimal effort into ten languages. All the necessary content modules can be easily exported into a translator-friendly format. Once translated, this data is stored in the CCMS and is available immediately. 

With a single click, 20 complete user manuals in ten languages can be generated from these content modules, with minimal effort from the technical writer, and with lower operating costs for the company. 

Manufacturers who work with a CCMS reduce the workload for the technical writer, the DTP team and the translation coordinator. Further benefits include:

  • Lower production costs 

  • Lower translation costs 

  • Faster processes 

  • Agile working

In addition to version control, a system such as this offers many other advantages: 

  • Information can be easily reused 

  • Content is easy to locate 

  • Versioning 

  • Standardised layout 

  • Separation of content and layout 

  • Language management 

  • Improved access for people with visual impairments 

  • Direct feedback with HTML output 

  • Quality assurance 

  • Automation 

  • Possible use of AI, such as chatbots 

Lexsys: The partner you can rely on for flawless technical documentation  

For newcomers to technical documentation, a word-processing program such as Microsoft Word may seem like the obvious choice. Everyone knows how to use it, and documents can be created quickly. 

However, the more complex your requirements become, the more poorly this type of software will perform. A lack of version control and the unrestricted access to files increase the likelihood of data loss, inconsistencies in style and layout, and formatting issues resulting from translation. 

Standalone solutions such as Adobe FrameMaker provide some of the same advantages as a CCMS. However, Component Content Management Systems (CCMS) are undoubtedly a better solution and offer manufacturers tremendous benefits. 

At Lexsys, we are happy to support manufacturers in creating, managing, and translating their technical documentation in a CMS or CCMS. Our project managers are well-versed in have a wealth of experience with systems of this kind and can provide you with expert advice in line with your needs. 

Would you like to find out more about how Lexsys can support you with your technical documentation? Contact us today to set up a consultation.

About the Author

David Hegarty

Senior Technical Writer and Content Creator

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