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Everything you need to know about user guides and manuals

Sooner rather than later, the Internet of Things will connect us all into a global network of intuitive devices, designed especially for our convenience. Even as we speak, smart technology is reshaping the way we live and work–with appliances, gadgets, and gizmos being omnipresent, a basic kind of technical knowledge is mandatory.

Still, not all of your customers will want to hit the books and study the new language. Instead, they want to be offered a cheat sheet to scan through once the need occurs, thus solving the problem quickly and easily. Ultimately, that’s why every IT department needs a technical writer in their midst.

Here’s why user guides and manuals are paramount even in the digital age, and how you should approach the writing process.

What is a user guide?

Otherwise referred to as a user manual, a user guide is a technical document with a quite specific purpose: to help non-technical people pinpoint and solve problems without expert assistance.

Since user guides translate what’s not comprehensible to a plain language for everyone to understand, they are essential in technical sectors and most commonly associated with software and hardware, IT systems, and electronic goods.

Usually, they are written by technical writers, but project managers, product developers, and technical staff are oftentimes allocated with this task as well.

When set to explain complex technical products and offer instructions for complicated operational tasks, user guide writers use knowledge base software systems that smart companies leverage for storing and organizing their intelligence. When it comes to managing technical knowledge, they are extremely helpful.

Why are they important?

However technologically-savvy, today’s customers are also accustomed to easy solutions. After all, the digital age promotes intuitive technology and smart devices exactly because people want to use them without any unnecessary effort. “Everything a click away”—that’s the parole of these modern times we live in. Consequently, user guides are a significant aspect for every IT developer, and a much-needed addition to their customer services.

It’s important to understand that, though mainly written for non-technical people, user guides respond to everyone’s needs. Be it that a confusing printer out-of-ink message or a suspicious PS noise, common technical problems should be possible to solve on the spot, since time is of the essence for each and every one of us.

In simpler words, user guides are here to help you deal with customer frustration simply by giving them the means to identify, understand, and untangle frequent technical problems by themselves. At the same time, manuals that are helpful, coherently written, and easy to read and follow make customers feel appreciated and contribute to their satisfaction, however complex the product might be.

How to write a helpful user guide?

It goes without saying that user guides are not easy to write, and that applies to both technical writers and programmers. While the former need a complete understanding of the product, the science that lies behind it, and the problems that typically occur, the latter often have difficulties transcribing programming languages in plain words. For helpful user guides, nevertheless, both are essential.

Here’s how to master this unusual and quite demanding craft.

Determine your average user

Since user manuals are written to provide summarized, but highly functional knowledge, the first thing you’ll need to do is to identify the audience you’ll be addressing. Who all are using your product? What is their level of technical knowledge? What are their common pain points and frustrations? And, most importantly, what are the problems they’ll potentially have to deal with?

Think about the user, the system, and the specific tasks; once you’ve grasped all three, you’ll know how detailed your manual needs to be, how convenient for reading in different occasions, and how straightforward in terms of descriptions, explanations, and instructions.

This targeting process will help you understand the people you’ll need to help and establish your approach. Consequently, the results will direct your writing process in every aspect, from content and presentation, to form, style, and language.

Explain, describe, and chunk

In order to be helpful, a user guide needs to be easy to navigate and scan through, which means that you’ll have to think about writing and structuring alike. Apart from the body, you’ll need to offer table of contents, an index page, glossary of terms, and reference materials as well.

The body, however, is still the most important part of your manual, given that it provides all necessary procedures and instructions. Users will want to know not only how, but also exactly in which situations and under what terms to perform a certain task, so you’ll have to be as thorough and detailed as possible. That, of course, doesn’t apply an in-depth explanation of technical mechanisms behind the product, but a comprehensive step-by-step description of how the operation should be performed.

Each major task deserves a section or chapter of its own, and if even slightly complicated, you should think about dividing it into subtasks for easier navigation. When needed, subtasks can be broken down into smaller pieces of information called chunks. Start every section with a short introduction in which you’ll provide an overview of the operation and finish each chunk with a description of how the product or system should look like after the subtask is performed. Consider the “if-then” method and predict possible scenarios for every chunk in the sequence.

Adjust your language

Even if used by people with a more than basic understanding of technology, you’ll have to presume that you’re addressing the average user and adjust your writing style and language accordingly. This means that your manual will have to be cleared of all technical jargon and specialized terms that a reader might find confusing or even unintelligible. In addition to simple language, effective manuals are written in active voice and with imperative verb forms that ensure the utmost clarity.

Structure for utmost readability

A well-written manual still doesn’t guarantee maximum readability and convenience, which is why it needs to be formatted and structured in a way that promises complete transparency and swift navigation. Always organize your text with this in mind and divide it with distinctly written headings and section titles. Use italics and bold for separating different information and underline what needs to be stressed.

While writing procedures, make sure to number the steps and consider double columns for easier scan-reading. Finally, a helpful manual uses photographs and illustration in order to explain complicated procedures graphically, since that’s the most effective way of making a complex subject matter comprehensible.

To recap, a helpful manual serves at the user’s convenience and has to be written and formatted as such. What’s required of a writer are not only writing skills, but technical knowledge and an understanding of the audience as well. When explained in simple terms and structured with absolute readability in mind, a user guide provides the ultimate assistance for even the most arduous technical tasks.

Robin Singh

Robin is a Technical Support Executive and an ed-tech enthusiast with a combined experience of six years. He is well-acquainted with various knowledge-based tools and is passionate about writing on emerging technologies in the areas of knowledge management and role of knowledge-based tools in modern businesses. Working with numerous organizations has given him a hands-on experience in the application of knowledge-based tools in various sectors of business. His key areas of interest range from the strategies of managing knowledge in large organizations to handling all the areas of customer support in companies of all sizes. He is currently associated with ProProfs. In his free time, Robin enjoys reading, travelling and music.

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