Top 4 steps from manuals to topics

A little bit of planning ensures you get clean, manageable topics from your conversion of user manuals.

While most help authoring tools support importing Word documents, there’s more to getting re-usable topics out of user manuals, as I’ve found out. I’ve spent the last few weeks converting 3 related Word manuals of 360 pages into 400 topics in Madcap Flare – though I believe that the process below applies to other tools as well.

The aim was to merge the contents from separate Word-to-PDF manuals with the online help topics into a single sourcing repository from which we can create both online help and manuals.

My two key lessons of the conversion are:

  • Plan first, execute second – several hundred topics are too many for trial & error and picking up the pieces later.
  • Do each task as early as possible – some Word idiosyncrasies are hard to clean up after the conversion.

And here’s how I did it in 4 steps:


1. Start with plans

The whole conversion exercise benefitted much from a couple of designs that I followed:

  • An information model
  • A folder structure for my topics

The information model defines the 4 topic types we have and what each type contains internally. It’s basically “DITA, without the boring parts” about which I blogged previously.

The folder structure divides my one Flare project into several sub-folders, so I don’t have 400 topics in one heap. Instead, I now have 13 sub-folders which divide up my topics by topic type (concept, task or reference) and even by task type (initial setup or daily workflow). That makes it easier to manage the topic files.

2. Prepare for the import

Once I had the basic structure to organize topics and their insides, I prepared my Word manuals, so I didn’t have to deal with a GIGO situation, where I get Garbage In, Garbage Out.

First, I edited the documents into topics, so each section could become either a concept, task or reference topic – or an auxiliary topic which ensures that the chunks still flow nicely when you read them in the future manual output. I also ensured that section headings indicate topic contents and type:

  • Concept topics use noun phrases as headings
  • Task topics start with an imperative

Then, I cleaned up the documents. You can convert unstructured Word with layout applied in styles, modified styles and manual formatting into topics just fine, but it will give you unmanageable content and endless grief. So do your future self a favor and dissolve all modified styles and manual formatting.

3. Import

Thus prepared, I’ve found that Flare’s built-in Word import is very good, consistent and reliable if you throw well-structured Word documents at it. Only tables didn’t import well (or I couldn’t figure out how to do it), so I re-styled them in Flare.

If you’re a stickler for clean topics, you can go ahead in Flare and clean out unnecessary remnants:

  • Remove Word’s reference tags in cross references by replacing *.htm#_Ref1234567″ with *.htm”
  • Remove Word’s Toc tags in Flare’s table of contents by replacing *.htm#_Toc1234567″ with *.htm”
  • Remove Word’s Toc anchors in topics by deleting <a name=”_Toc*”></a>

4. Adding value to topics

At this point, I had a pile of 400 clean topics, but no added value from the conversion yet. That came from additional tasks:

  • Dividing up topic files into the folder structure, which makes hundreds of topic files manageable.
  • Assigning a topic type to topic files (Flare lets you do that for several files at once, so this was very fast), which makes the content intelligent, because topics “know” what they are.
  • Assigning in-topic elements (as div tags) to topic paragraphs according to the information model, which allows you to identify and reuse even parts of topics, for example, instruction sections or example sections.
  • Creating relationship tables for cross-references into relationship tables where feasible, which ensures that links are easier to manage and to keep up to date.

Your turn

Have you done a similar conversion? What were your experiences? Did you do it yourself or with an outside consultant? Feel free to leave a comment.