How to Write a Helpful User Manual?

by Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp — all-in-one help authoring tool

A user manual is a technical communication document intended to give assistance to people on how to use a product.

User guides transform incomprehensible technical subject matter into plain language so that everyone would understand what was meant. They are vital in technical sectors and associated with software and hardware, IT systems, and electronic goods. Technical writers are the people who create user guides, but not only them; project managers, product developers, and technical staff are oftentimes allocated with this task as well.

Other names, or other forms of a user manual, might be:

  • User guide
  • Maintenance manual
  • Technical documentation
  • Instruction manual
  • Operational manual
  • Training manual
  • Quick Start Guide
  • Installation manual
  • Software manual

Complex technical products and instructions for complicated operational tasks can easily confuse readers and overwhelm writers. Since a user guide is a highly specialized type of document it requires the precise application of specific skills. But with the right approach, writers can handle these projects with confidence. Here are the tips to write a user-friendly user manual.

  1. Understand your audience. An understanding of the reader adds to the clarity in writing. It’s completely different to write for an expert who knows the vocabulary and to write for a novice. It may also help to know how they will use the manual: will they be using it as a reference, or they will be going through page by page. The desired outcome is if the tech writer can draw a clear line among the facts, arguments, and main points and the needs and interests of the readers.
  2. Focus on clarity. A lack of clarity can leave readers unable to follow the instructions or solve their problems, especially if the user manuals are aimed at common readers. If worst comes to worst, it might lead them to aggravate the problem! In an effective guide, clarity is crucial.
  3. Use segmental writing. Try to wrap each key idea into self-contained segments. These small modules can ease the writing process, facilitate reader comprehension, make it easy to update the manual down the road and create reusable bits of text. This is a great way to simplify the writing process and the user manual itself for easier output and usage.
  4. Remember to think critically. Understanding the work and its audience requires the application of critical thinking and planning. This means figuring out how to connect the dots between the writing, the reader, and desired outcomes.
  5. Involve visuals. Graphics, tables, charts, flow diagrams, photos can help communicate complex ideas easily and quickly. This is especially true for instructional documents. Visuals can help when words have little effect. In cases where the words may confuse the reader, the visuals provide clarity and ease navigation through the document.
  6. Use appropriate tools. Microsoft Word is not the ideal solution for really complex documents, particularly those containing internal references or requiring interactivity with the reader. Specialized help authoring tools can facilitate the process of creating organized, well-structured, and even interactive manuals. For instance, ClickHelp is a great option here!
  7. Keep it short. Too much information can confuse and overwhelm. Like Science magazine writes, “Do you know what you’d call a magazine article that required intellectual scrutiny and uninterrupted neural commitment to figure out what it’s even trying to say? You’d call it a badly written article.”
  8. Create meaningful headings. Each topic in the user manual gets its own heading. Good headings can show what the actual text is about. They appear in the table of contents, so the user can navigate to the needed information.
  9. Beta test the document. Beta test the user manual like a product: stress-test it for flaws and weaknesses. Here’s when analytics and user feedback can help you. Listen to the audience speak, and you’ll be amazed at the results.

The process of creating a user guide is not easy. A technical writer needs a complete understanding of the product, the science that lies behind it, and the problems that typically occur. A helpful user manual serves at the user’s convenience and must be written and formatted. What’s required of a writer are writing skills, technical knowledge, and an understanding of the audience. A user guide assists even for the most challenging technical tasks when explained in simple terms and structured with absolute readability in mind.

Have a nice day!

Bradley Nice, Content Manager at ClickHelp.com — best online documentation tool for SaaS vendors

Content Manager at https://medium.com/level-up-web 👈. I write about web design, web development and technical writing. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook