But how did I end up in the market of manual authoring tools? Why did I choose this particular area for my new challenge?
Well, like many software ideas, it started with a problem I was running into myself.
The Collectorz.com software manuals
A few years ago, we were fed up with the clumsiness of our manuals being included with our software in the form of Windows help files. You know how it goes, your new software version is ready for release and you’re eager to get it out there. So bringing the manual up-to-date with your new features often takes a back seat. Sometimes you whip up some new topics quickly, sometimes you just skip that part completely.
And then, the software is released, with the less-than-optimal manual included in the installer. So even if you do improve the new topics later, you will have to build a new version of your software and installer to get the updated manual in the hands of your users.
At Collectorz.com, this awkward process just didn’t work and resulted in our manuals always being outdated. So I figured, what if we could maintain and update our manuals without releasing a new version of the software or its’ installer. That would let us start with some quick basic topics, then go all-the-way after the software release and even tweak the topic contents based on user feedback.
The CLZ Manual Admin
Of course, the obvious solution is to have your manuals online.
So I started looking for a tool to create online manuals. Not a desktop app that exports to HTML. No I wanted an online tool, a web-application to create and maintain online manuals. In other words a content management tool for online manuals.
And strangely enough, at the time (I am talking early 2009 here) I could find no such thing.
So I did what developers usually do in situations like this: I created it myself 🙂
Simply dubbed “the CLZ Manual Admin”, it started out as a very basic in-house tool, completely focussed on our products and the way we like to do things at Collectorz.com, cutting corners where possible. But already including some smart methods for sharing topics between manuals (essential for efficiently maintaining the manuals for 9 different but similar Windows and Mac products). Later, based on feedback from our support guys, I added tracking features to measure topic popularity and thumbs up/down ratings for keeping track of topic quality.
Of course, these support guys, who maintain our manuals, have more ideas for enhancements and new features. But instead of hacking them into the existing web-app, I decided to start from scratch and turn this in-house tool into a real product that we could sell. An application suited for use by other software developers and basically everyone who needs to create and maintain online manuals. Manula was born.
And now Collectorz.com is my first “customer” 🙂
We’re already using Manula to create the manual for our upcoming CLZ Comics 2.0 app for iOS. An excellent opportunity to test the Manula admin tool and the responsiveness of the live manuals on multiple device types (desktop, iPad and iPhone).