How to Write a User Manual

Updated on May 23, 2018

User manuals are often a source of conflict amongst readers. Typically, people take one glance at a product manual then set it aside when it appears to be too lengthy or complicated. It is safe to assume that most people are pressed for time when they refer to these manuals for guidance (Hodgson). Therefore, it is important that technical writers who are preparing to create sets of instructions, write clearly and concisely, and use a simple design layout for content pages (Gregory). There are numerous techniques that technical writers can use to enhance reader findability and thus increase the likelihood that user manuals will be read when preparing manual instructions (Hodgson).

This research report will describe how to create an exceptional user manual based on the following principles: analyzing the reader’s perception; effective information design and thorough testing of the final user manual.

Analyzing the Reader's Perception

When preparing to write a user manual, a technical communicator must first research and identify the key demographics of the people most likely to use the product / software at hand. For example, what is the average age group and education level of users (Hodgson)? Will they have any background knowledge about this product; if so, how much? The answers to questions like these determine what type of language to use, and how much detail to include in the introductory section of the manual. In order for a user manual to fulfill its objectives, writers must first identify and understand their target audience (Hodgson).

Reader Findability

One of the main problems with ineffective user manuals is that they fail to meet the standards of reader findability. Most people open user manuals expecting to find a particular piece of information about the product, whether that be answers to a trouble-shooting inquiry or details about a specific function. When readers are forced to sift through endless amounts of undifferentiated product information, this increases the likelihood that they will toss the manual to the side and attempt to solve the problem themselves (Hodgson).

Writers can enhance reader findability by creating a detailed table of contents, splitting up information into several sections, using a classic, readable font like San- Serif, including a glossary of terms and using bold font for section headings and important information (Hodgson). An example of an exceptional user manual is the iPad User Guide for iOS 6.1 Software, which is presented in pdf format. The introductory section of this guide, titled “iPad Overview” simply presents readers with a labeled illustration of the iPad without overwhelming them with paragraphs of information about the product or endless bullet points.

Effective Information Design

The success of a user manual in meeting objectives, depends on effective information design. The way information is visually presented to users is just as important as the information itself (Millman). User manuals should be divided up into sections according to functional categories. Exceptional user manuals typically contain all of the following elements:

Table of Contents

The table of contents gives readers an idea of the scope of the user manual, the information it contains, the topics it covers and the troubleshooting questions it addresses (Hodgson).

  • The table of contents should be structured sequentially, in a well-thought-out manner and separated into several sections (Millman). Section headings should be written in bold-faced font and sum up in just a few words, the information that will be discussed (Hodgson).

Brief Introduction / Overview

The introduction section of the user manual should not exceed two or three paragraphs in length (Gregory). If this is a product manual, a simple illustration of the product with all parts clearly labeled will suffice; diagrams familiarize the user with the product without overwhelming them with paragraphs of information, where a pictorial will do (Gregory).

Safety Warnings

Safety warnings should be included throughout the user manual and placed appropriately next to steps in which possible safety hazards can occur (Robinson, 8).

Appendix

Trouble-shooting tips and any additional safety information not previously mentioned, should be placed at the end of the user manual in concluding appendix sections (Hodgson).

Giving Instructions

The body of the user manual should walk users step-by-step through a set of concise instructions; each step should be separated by bullet-points (Hodgson). Although giving instructions might seem like an easy task, it is actually quite complicated; there are many factors to consider. The complexity of writing user guides makes it easy for writers to become preoccupied with details and overlook seemingly obvious things (Robinson, 3).

Writers must make sure that each step is in the correct order and that the instructions fit the product (Millman). Each step should be written as a command in the present tense, using layman’s terms, yet instructions should not come across as patronizing to users (Hodgson). It is best for technical communicators to write the instructions while performing the actual task that is being explained to ensure that each step matches the process users will undergo (Robinson, 5). If any symbols or icons are used in the instructions, they should be identified at the start of the manual using a legend (Millman).

Thorough Testing of Final User Manual

After writing a user manual it is crucial that technical writers test these sets of instructions on several people, who fit into user demographics and do not have any affiliation with the product or software at hand (Robinson, 3). This gives the writer an idea of any problematic aspects of the user manual that might need to be altered before publication, such as any sections that are not clear or cause confusion. Another benefit of testing instructions on regular people is that it allows writers to identify the key terms users specifically look for as they scan over user manuals; writers can then go back and adjust their instructions accordingly.

Included in the user guide is this diagram which demonstrates how to properly use a SIM card tray.
Included in the user guide is this diagram which demonstrates how to properly use a SIM card tray. | Source

Traits of an Exceptional User Manual

The iPad User Guide for iOS 6.1 Software, is the perfect example of an exceptional set of instructions. The design of the user manual is clean, well-organized and easy to read. The technical writer of this document left sufficient blank space in the margins of each page, so as not to overwhelm the reader with endless amounts of text (Gregory). Several features are used in the document to enhance reader finability, such as a sequential table of contents which is split up into chapters, bold section headings, one language is used throughout and actual pictures of the iPad are included in order to sufficiently demonstrate instructions.

Example of a Poorly Written User Manual

In 2004, Technical Standards (a technical writing company in Southern California) formally announced the winner of their annual “Worst Manual Contest”. The submission consisted of a two page safety section from the user manual of an air-conditioning unit. Here are some excerpts from that manual:

“To apply the cold wind to the body for a longtime and so as to not exist about cooling too much (STC).”

“Please do not put the one embarrassed because it gets wet under the air conditioner (STC).”

It’s safe to assume, the writer of this document was not a native English speaker and the translation could clearly use some work. To make matters worse, it is the most important part of the user manual that is incomprehensible: the safety section, which is a liability for the manufacturer (Robinson, 8).

Recommendations

The final recommendation of this report is that technical communicators who are creating user manuals, excel in the following three areas: analyzing the reader’s perception, implementing effective information design techniques and thoroughly testing the final draft of instructions on regular people before publication. Demonstrating skill and proper execution in each of these areas is sure to yield exceptional results that will leave users, manufacturers and sellers satisfied.

Sources Consulted

Apple Inc. iPad User Guide For iOS 6.1 Software. 2013. PDF file.


Gregory, Alyssa. “7 Tips for Writing an Effective Instruction Manual”. Site Point. Site Point Co.,

16 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.


Hannink, Erno. Table of Content Owners Manual. n.d. Web. (table of contents image)


Hodgson, Phillip. User Focus. User Focus Co., 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.


Millman, Barry. “Rules and Tips for Writing Great User Documents”. Great User Docs.

Igetitnow! Training Inc., 2007. Web. 13 Apr. 2013


n.p. Society for Technical Communication. Berkeley, 2004. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.


Robinson, Patricia. Writing and Designing Manuals and Warnings 4e. 4th ed. CRC Press, 2009.

Print.


Sonos Inc. At A Glance. 2013. Web. (iPad diagram image)


Whitaker, Cathrine. “The User Guide and the Training Manual: Learn to Write Both”. Society

for Technical Communication: Phoenix Chapter. stc-phoenix, 2005. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

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    • profile image

      Roger Finch 

      2 years ago

      Hi there,

      Superb article.

      I am an instruction designer and your article made a lot of sense, especially the part about Effective Information Design. I am of the notion that good manual design in that which helps you effortlessly find the information you are looking for. Thank for sharing your tips. Please keep them coming.

      Also, here's a creative article on writing manuals: http://www.proprofs.com/c/knowledge-base/how-to-cr...

      I like the author's points on color theory and typography.

      Cheers...

    • Tolovaj profile image

      Tolovaj 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for all the tips. I don't have an intention to write user manuals, but never say never, right? I believe the same standards apply to all technical writing, so this article can help many authors and people, who are for some reason pushed into this area of writing. I have seen many really confused manuals in last years, so well explained and clearly written tips can only help to everybody, especially users.

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