How To Write a User Manual
Whether you are compiling a user manual (also known as instruction manuals) for a service or product, be it a system, tool, device, or instrument, the methodology is the same. You need to create a user document that is (1) scannable and (2) accessible.
Here's how to create effective step instructions for a user manual.
1. Define your target audience and purpose
Like any document, the first step is to define your audience to create an effective user manual and improve the user experience. Who is going to be reading your document? You will want to collaborate with Marketing on this one. Here are a few examples of actual users:
- Internal employees (for onboarding and training)
Legos is a great example of a company creating user manuals targeted at clearly defined users. They refer to their user guides as “building instructions.” These represent the very finest in the portrayal of easy-to-understand user manuals. Legos also show the complexities that come into play when you go about defining your target. Lego products are geared toward children ages 1-15. However, their user guides also include a second audience set, i.e., a parent or other adult.
Every product is different. Every service is unique. Just keep in mind the average user of your document to improve the end customer experience. Also, determine the true purpose of your user manual. Put it into writing. Why are you actually writing this document?
2. Choose the right format
Nowadays, multiple mediums are out there to reach your audience. You can use the traditional hard copy guide for your user manual. You can post a soft copy on your website. You can even create video instructions and post to YouTube.
The channel you choose should be 100% dependent on your reader’s needs, but you want it to be scannable. You can accomplish “scannable” in a few ways. The right presentation can make all the difference:
- Illustrated guide: As the name suggests, this guide is chock full of drawings.
- Video guide: These include “how-to videos” or video tutorials. It's a transfer of knowledge through the medium of video. Some options include Loom, Snagit, or Camtasia.
- Image: Instructions that come with illustrations or pictures.
- Digital text: Refers to anything that comes in the form of digital or electronic.
- Blended media: Commonplace in the market today, this category includes any combination of the above.
The best part about creating a user manual in this age of tools and apps is that there are many paths to choose. You can do a lot of cool things formatting-wise with free templates. There are even some companies that include the legalese as part of their manual template. If you opt to incorporate a video, this wevideo blog provides great insight on how to carry that out.
Whether you choose the paper route or digital, be aware of your audience’s comfort level, which means be mindful of their level of techno-savvy and remember that not everyone is an expert user.
3. Plan and write the content
Now that you have defined your audience and selected your format, you can focus on planning and writing content. Follow the steps below:
- Step #1: Map out what content and steps should go into the manual. If needed, interview stakeholders (e.g., Sales). A collaborative concept map, such as through MindMeister, can make sure everyone is on the same page with the content.
- Step #2: Within your map or outline, create headings to categorize steps in different sections. Also, use a numerical sequence to list steps so that the steps are easy to follow. Ensure you have simple steps. Be straightforward and concise in your delivery.
- Step #3: Follow your content plan and write your content. Adhere to a technical style of writing. If you need additional support, get top-tier training in technical documentation.
- Step #4: Insert graphics and visuals along the way. Here are some good tips on creating effective visuals in technical writing.
- Step #5: Write the summary at the end. This will ensure that you have the necessary context to summarize the primary points.
- Step #6: Get verified. Go back to your key players and departments and double- and triple-check the content. Gain approval that each step is articulated as intended.
- Step #7: Edit the manual. Start by reviewing the substance again. Does it match your target reader's needs and the purpose you identified at the beginning? Is it easy to understand? Update or revise if needed. Also, use a grammar check. Grammarly is a helpful tool.
You'll be tempted to edit the document as you draft, but this is inefficient. Wait until you've completely written the draft before you ever begin editing. Editing should be your last step in the writing process.
4. Follow best technical documentation practices
Let’s review some of the items that you will definitely want to include in your user manual. And others that are to be avoided at all times. Here goes:
- Be sure to include a Table of Content (TOC). Part of the ease of reading through a user manual is being able to conduct an upfront scan of what the document contains. You want your reader to be able to quickly hone in on their topic of interest. Again, there are a plethora of examples and templates. There are sites that make a Table of Content attractive and easy to devise.
- The inclusion of real user input is nice to have. It’s not mandatory, but if you can incorporate the experiences of users in the same position as your audience, it would go a long way in building a connection with your readers.
- To only include language that is clear and concise, it is imperative to exclude jargon. Sometimes we are so entrenched in the lingo that we forget. Take advantage of this jargon grader.
- Make it searchable. Decades ago, absent of everything being posted on the internet, there was only one way to search. This was through the index section of the user manual. With the digital transformation, you can search with a click of a button. Either way, the search function is probably the most important feature of a user manual. Here, of course, you can receive great support and built-in tools for creating an index.
- Be sure to include links to other resources. These are for your reader base looking to take your user manual to the next level. It’s a fast and easy way to please your high-achieving base.
Finally, use active voice over passive voice. Active voice is more engaging for the reader. More on the topic here.
Here are three examples of manuals to inspire you as you create your own:
1. InDesign User Guide
2. HRO00153 Cellular Phone User Manual Sharp
3. LASS Manual
Related: 5 Strong Technical Writing Examples
Write Your User Manual
Whatever technical documents you're writing, at Instructional Solutions, we offer online technical writing courses with comprehensive lessons, exercises, and individualized feedback to help new or experienced technical writers. No matter your assignment, Instructional Solutions helps you take a technical writing approach to create effective manuals.