In this era of technology, user manuals and guides are part of almost every human being’s life whether it is for software, a mobile phone, a household machine, or a car. No product in the market is without a manual. A manual is a promise on behalf of the seller that we tend to take care of our customers hence we have documented the most important tasks that the customer intends to perform on a daily basis while using the product.
For any software solution provider, one might wonder and ask this silly question “do we really need a user manual?”, then without doing any research or learning about the customer the company decides not to make a user manual. Let me be straight and inform you that having a user manual is one of the major steps that one takes to help the business grow.
The application can be developed in any platform mobile, web, or desktop but without a guide, it is missing a vital part of the first point of contact of the customer once the product or solution is sold.
However, the documentation domain does not restrict the organization to just create user manuals, any piece of documentation that can be a guide around the application or office can be produced and made part of the Knowledge Base. User Manuals, Admin handbooks, Troubleshooting guides, Installation & deployment procedures, API documents, Information and Security Policies, and any other SOP’s can help the user at various levels of interaction with the product, software or the organization.
The exquisite art of manual writing
The effectiveness of any user manual or document can be measured based on the orchestration and presentation of the topics covered in the illustration. The manuals must be clear, precise, consistent, and accurate. If the manuals are not written under the governance of the above principles then they will not turn out to be as useful for the customer as intended.
One golden rule that should always be followed while producing any documentation whether its a user manual or a business/technical document is to not just provide information about the feature, it should always be about “How to get things done”. Humans have a natural tendency to be happy when they open a user manual and find exactly what they are looking for.
Who should write the user manual?
An integral embodiment to consider is that the document must be written by an expert professional. For instance, if you ask a developer to write a user manual he might not be able to produce a document that can actually help the customer, because this is not part of the developer’s expertise.
Always get the job done from a technical/business communication expert. This person knows what the user wants to see, interprets it in simple English language for better understanding, and ultimately, getting important business activities done on time.
Audience, Purpose, and Scope of a User Manual
Research is the key to identify the purpose and scope of the manual that will help the audience in an intended manner. For instance, if you abruptly start building a user manual without having the proper knowledge or laying out a specific plan then the manual is going to fail you at the time of need.
Flavors of Manuals
Product User Manual
This manual illustrates all the major business activities that can be performed using the product or software solution. The same can be developed for hardware devices or other machinery like cars, medical equipment, boilers, and tanks, etc.
Before using anything whether its a software or a home theatre system, etc. one needs to install it. This manual is a stepwise pictorial representation of how to install stuff.
Troubleshoot or Administration Manual
The troubleshooting manual comes in handy to find the solution to the most common errors that occur while installing or using a product.
Quick Start Guides
This manual contains information about how to get the most basic operations done like Sign up, log in, Forget password, Search, etc.
API/Web Services Manual
A detailed document that provides information about all the API or web services used in the system. It includes the headers, syntax, request, and response of the APIs.
A detailed stepwise and pictorial representation of one complete business activity that can be performed using the software.
These are the list of frequently asked questions. There are a lot of products and services that do not plan to create an extensive manual right in the first go as the product is following lots of changes. In this case, companies try to address major user queries by creating a FAQs.
The structure of a FAQ document is kind of straight forward, one question having one answer. But you can always add more details like steps, links, and screenshots as the answer. When you do so, the document starts getting lengthier and kind of out of hand. It’s better to retain the integrity of the document form and stick to it, otherwise create a different kind of manual.
This manual tends to provide each and every business and technical detail of all the ins-and-outs of a software product or solution with examples and scenarios. Some companies prefer to stick with the name; in such a case, the manual will strictly define which section and field do what, without addressing any user tasks. Although this gets pretty boring to read, yet it serves its purpose.
In addition to having user manuals, product guides, etc. each department of any organization has a certain set of rules and procedures that they follow and perform on a daily basis. These are coined as the Standard Operating Procedures of the company.
Contingency Planning Manual
For any kind of emergencies or unforeseen situation, all modern organizations have laid out detailed contingency planning manuals. For instance, what to do in case the live transaction-based solution goes down due to a ghost bug or by getting hacked.
All organizations whether big or small get audited by either private bodies to get certified or by government agencies for tax purposes, etc. The audit manual provides information on how to get the required business, financial, and operational reports and present these to the auditor and explain these accordingly.
Do we really need a User Manual?
A manual is a global document that can be easily comprehended by any person using the software product or solution or a device and machine for the first time. A manual can be helpful for a number of things that are explained in detail below.
Consistency and Guidance
For any application, there are multiple roles that tend to use it for various purposes. For instance, the admin is responsible for the maintenance and administration of the application, the end-user sends and processes requests in the application, and the auditor generates reports from the application. Having a consistent standard for the guidance of the roles can help users do their jobs on time and with proper accuracy.
Launching of new products or services
For launching a new service or a product having a manual can be used as it is the first point of reference for the customer that what the product is about and how to use it for your benefit and getting things done.
Valuable Tool for Training
A manual can help understand all the technical and business rules implemented in the software solution or product. It can be useful for new developers, QA resources, and administrators.
Reducing Information Gap
A well-devised manual can be useful for any type of resource to be up to date regarding the application. No one is left behind in case they read the manual and utilize it properly.
New Enhancement or Feature
Added a new feature to the product or made
certain enhancements to existing functionality, this should be made part of the
manual as the customer will be needing to know about the latest updates in the
A word DOCX, PDF, or a Webhelp?
Numerous free and licensed tools are available in the market to cater to the need for designing and producing a user manual or any other document. Some of the notable and commonly used tools of the technical writing domain are:
Sometimes called Winword, MS Word, or Word, Microsoft Word is a word processor published by Microsoft. It is one of the office productivity applications included in the Microsoft Office. Microsoft Word is available for Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, Android, and Apple iOS. It can also be run on the Linux operating system using WINE.
Adobe FrameMaker is a document processor designed for writing and editing large or complex documents, including structured documents.
A modern content management/knowledge base tool to create media-rich experiences using HTML5 and CSS3. Customize layouts and templates with a powerful CSS and skin editor. Publish content as Responsive HTML5, PDF, Mobile App and much more to serve customers across all touchpoints. Collaborate using Git, SharePoint Online and more
Designed for advanced topic-based authoring, publishing, and content management (CMS), MadCap Flare is more than a help authoring tool. Create self-service support and online Help sites, training guides, knowledge bases, policy & procedure manuals, and more – all while maximizing content reuse and leveraging multi-channel publishing capabilities
Each tool has its own advantages and disadvantages, ultimately, It is all about a matter of preference and budget. All tools are well capable of getting the job done.
Once the manual is created, now one needs to decide in which format will the document or manual be published. The most common tool to build the user manual is Microsoft Word, but the most common formats of publishing the manuals are PDF and Web helps.
Lets quickly analyze the manual publishing options
A Microsoft doc file is huge and crashes frequently. Some experts do not even prefer MS Word to write the user manual, however, it is a highly used tool for doing so.
The PDF is a “Portable document-format”, which is light-weight, secure, and easily transferable to clients. But it is mostly used for documents that need to be printed.
For internet-savvy clients, the web help can be published and placed on the internet for easy and quick access from anywhere around the world. The web help offers quick access to topics and advanced search options to find information using keywords. The web help can also be published into an ebook for offering the complete web experience on a personal laptop, desktop, or device.
User Manual Guidelines
While designing a manual there are certain factors that need to be avoided and certain elements that can produce a great result for the end-user.
Don’ts of a User Manual
Ambiguous instructions can prove to be impractical and useless for both the company and the end-user. The author must keep in mind that the user manual must not be:
- Heavily relying on oodles of text
- Vague and hard to understand
- Full of technical jargons and acronyms
- Too much abstract
- Highly technical and no business information
- Not accessible when needed
- Poorly structured
- Content-focused rather Problem Solving centric
Do’s of a User Manual
A well-crafted user manual is the result of a lot of planning, designing, and tiring efforts of the author and other stakeholders. The following must be considered while designing a user manual
Use plain language so that the user can easily understand what you are trying to tell. Otherwise, the user will feel completely lost and confused, and won’t be able to get the required job done.
Design the manual in a way that its writing style, content place, and use of images/graphics compliment each other. Cluttering the user manual will load and loads of content, images, etc can be very intimidating and unfriendly for the user.
A picture is worth a thousand words. But, the rule of thumb is to use visuals where necessary. In addition, the quality of the visuals must be impeccable, blurred, and dim images add no value. Recent research from Techsmith explains that people absorb more information while looking at images than actually reading the text.
Hierarchy and Flow – Must be Logical!
A manual must always be segregated based on modules, topics, and tasks offered by the product. This segregation if not logical and in a proper sequence will not help the user in an intended manner. The end-user will be lost and won’t be able to follow the topics as they are not arranged logically in a flow. If the manual explains advanced topics first and basic topics later then it won’t help the user understand the product in a systematic manner.
One of the best possible flows of the user guide topics can be:
Simple Activities -> Intermediate Activities -> Advanced Activities -> Expert Activities
Always Include a Table of Content
A table of contact is the guide of the user manual. This is the first thing that every user checks while trying to find the required topic. The TOC must be simple and have links to all the topics explained in the manual.
The user manual topics where necessary must be linked with each other so that if the user wishes to see associated topics can quickly jump to those without having to locate them separately. In addition, links to other documents can also be added to the user manual.
Test your manual
Once the manual is finalized, the author of the user manual must thoroughly test the user manual against the application and illustrated topics.
The user manual must be a complete text-based, a stepwise, and a visually aided replica of the product or software solution. In case of any discrepancies, the manual must be fixed before publishing for the user.
User Manual Vetting by SME
The user manual must also be vetted by the subject matter experts that are not the author of the document. For instance, the QA team or the business analyst can be requested to verify and validate the information in the document.
Keep documentation up to date
As soon as new features or enhancements are added in the software product or solution, the complete update cycle must be run to include these in the user manuals and other produced documents.
How to create a knowledge base?
The answer to this question is to build a knowledge base that is accessible to the customers any time and from any location.
Once all the documents are created, proof-read, edited, finalized, and classified, now a centralized place is required to publish all this material for the customers.
The customer can browse through all the available documents on the knowledge base as per the privacy settings. An embedded search facility can help the customer to quickly find the document or topic they are looking for. Ultimately, an organization saves a lot of time and money on customer help and support by implementing a knowledge base.
Tools for building a knowledge base
A knowledge base tool helps the organization build its knowledge and publish it in the desired manner and the shortest possible time. Some essentials points that must be considered before choosing a knowledge base:
- Does the knowledge base tool offer- a premium user experience, scalable design, flexible and secure architecture
- Information categorization levels on the knowledge base
- The extent of privacy settings for classified documents
- How well the document is presented on the knowledge base
- Effective search facility for the discoverability of the document
- Quick links to useful topics
- support for videos
- Compatibility with most commonly used document formats
- Compatibility with various document authoring tools
Some of the famous knowledge base tools are:
Freshdesk is a cloud-based customer ticketing, collaboration, and knowledge base platform.
This is a knowledge base platform-oriented WordPress theme that provides comprehensive features related to customer collaboration, FAQs, ticket and lives AJAX search, etc.
It is a multichannel knowledge management solution by Zoho. It is designed to cater to businesses of all sizes. The primary limelight of the platform is seamlessness in offering customer support tickets, a customer support portal, contract management, and report creation.
A modern, responsive, and SEO friendly knowledge management system with an intuitive navigation system. Effective discoverability helps customers in finding the answer to their questions.
Can user manuals replace live support?
A manual never intends to replace the live support (either call or chat), whereas, it tends to complement and support the customer care mediums.
If a customer can quickly find the answer to their question from a manual available to them, they can save precious time and focus on getting things done rather than waiting for answers. For an organization, live support becomes less clogged for minor queries and can be helpful to customers with notable issues and problems.
User Manual heals End-User Frustration
Software solutions are highly beneficial to the society and its individuals. The end users are frequently encountering frustrating situations while using the system. Few of the most frustrating element is when a user:
- Cannot find the required feature
- Does not understand how to use this feature
- Has no idea what is being achieved through this feature
As a result, precious time is lost in contacting the live support and getting the answer to the above-mentioned frustrations. Recurrent frustrating experiences can cause the end-user to completely stop using the system and look for another capable solution.
What is the solution to end this frustration? A well-devised user manual with all the right questions answered can help the end-user in the time of need. The user manual acts as a savior for the customer as well as the organization. For the customer, it provides the answer to their queries and for the organization, it reduces customer Churn and increases customer satisfaction & retention.