New standard for software manuals

Paul Boughton
(Users of application software need accurate information about how the software will help the task to be accomplished. The documentation may be the first tangible item that the user sees and therefore influences the user's first impressions of the software product. A new international standard ISO/IEC 26514 will assist documentation designers and developers and supports the interest of software users.

ISO/IEC 26514 'Systems and software engineering – Requirements for designers and developers of user documentation' defines the documentation process from the documentation developer's standpoint. It covers the phases involved in designing, specifying, and producing user documentation. It applies both to printed documentation and on-screen documentation.

This new standard covers the phases involved in designing, specifying, and producing user documentation. It is divided in two parts:

The first part covers the user documentation process for designers and developers of documentation. It describes how to establish what information users need, how to determine the way in which that information should be presented to the users, and how to prepare the information and make it available. It is not limited to the design and development phase of the life cycle, but includes activities throughout the information management and documentation processes.

The second part provides minimum requirements for the structure, information content, and format of user documentation, including both printed and on-screen documents used in the work environment by users of systems containing software. It applies to printed user manuals, online help, tutorials, and user reference documentation.

It is recommended in the standard that development of the user documentation should be part of the development of the software product and follows the same processes as the software product life cycle and not a separate exercise.

User documentation remains an essential component of usable software products and ISO/IEC 26514:2008 may be helpful for developing the following types of documentation:

* Documentation of products other than software
* Multimedia systems using animation, video, and sound
* Computer-based training packages and specialised course materials intended primarily for use in formal training programmes
* Documentation produced for installers, computer operators or system administrators who are not end users
* Maintenance documentation describing the internal operation of systems software
* Documentation incorporated into the user interface itself

ISO/IEC 26514 is the first of a new suite of standards planned to address software user documentation. While ISO/IEC 26514 has been developed to address the needs of user documentation designers and developers, three further standards are being developed that will address the needs of managers, acquirers and suppliers, and testers and assessors of software user documentation.

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