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How to Create a Technical User Manual

There are two types of people in the world – those who read manuals, and those who don’t.

Feature rich products can be complex to use, and even with an intuitive interface, it is not unreasonable to expect users to train themselves in its operation. When working in support, there is nothing more infuriating then someone who rings for support not even having looked at the manual. But maybe that is because the manual is not as inviting as you think, but in support with a good manual, you can refer them right back to the relevant page. 

For those who don’t like to read a user guide, most will still dip in and browse to look up relevent elements, and these elements should be easy to find and actually inspire the user to continue.

Is there a standard template for user manuals?

As a starter, you should have standard branded template for a cover. The internal structure of manual needs to cover a variety of different topics which is dependent on your product and services. There are many “templates’ that can be downloaded off the web, but topics should include: –

  • Table of content
  • Product name
  • Safety warnings and Certifications
  • Intended use
  • Features/accessories
  • Description of product elements and interface requirements
  • Installation instructions (include quick start guide)
  • Description of how to operate
  • Troubleshooting section and instructions on how to solve problems
  • Maintenance information
  • Information on disposal of the product and packaging
  • Technical specifications
  • Glossary
  • Warranty information
  • Contact details
  • FAQ

What should be the format of a user manual?

In terms of writing style, it is suggested that you use Chicago or an AP Style. Before you begin to panic with a “what now??”, don’t worry, much of this is a “format style” and as long as you are consistent then do not worry about meeting these types of criteria. It is much more important that the content itself is structured, simple, grammatically correct, and easy to follow.

Effective user manuals need to consist of plain language, visuals, a focus on the problem, a logical hierarchy and flow for the solution. You must use graphics, explain acronyms, avoid jargon and don’t share opinions. And don’t just explain a feature, show how to use it – this is not a sales data sheet, this is an operations manual. 

Do not underestimate the value of a good technical manual. A well-crafted, user-friendly product manual, or user documentation (also referred to as an end user manual, end user guide, instruction manual), can mean the difference between a positive customer experience and a terrible one which will have a big impact on your brand and future revenue opportunities.

Snagit Step Tool

Take time to create visuals – “show” don’t “tell”. Use a “step-tool” for screen shots especially when a feature requires a number of steps via a GUI (Graphical User Interface) to operate. Don’t take a screen shot of each step – use one image with a chronological number sequence showing the steps involved and there are tools out there to do this. It is much simpler for the user documentation and for the people using it.

Ikea are the masters of the “Quick start guide”. Not all products lend themselves to this approach, but many users want to start using the product immediately and learn as they go. By having a quick start guide which enables them to use a sub set of the features immediately is a great start and inspires confidence. Give them a quick start guide


A user manual structure

Hierarchy – Documentation needs a hierarchy of headings and subheadings that lets a user know what each section will show them. But start in a logical way, setting up and switching on, then show some examples.  The hierarchy should follow a logical flow that helps the user learn to use your product in the most logical way, starting with simple set-up’s and then moving to more complex scenarios as appropriate.

Table of contents (TOC) –  A table of contents provides your customers a simple, efficient, and familiar way to quickly find a solution to their question or problem. It’s right at the beginning of the document, so they don’t have to sift through pages of text to find what they’re looking for. It should include all the major headings and subheadings as described above.

Accessibility –  Create accessible content by ensuring that electronic documentation adheres to standards of accessibility for people who may be blind or visually impaired, deaf or hard of hearing, or for those with  cognitive disabilities.  Many customers need this to fully access your user documentation.

FAQ – Back to the person who likes to dip in-and-out of manuals – often they are looking to solve a particular issue. I would always recommend an FAQ – A frequently asked questions section – ideally this can be continually refined. In support, many of the questions are repetitive. Put them in the FAQ section!

Finally pdf or not to pdf – When on a website from a mobile device, I really do not want to download a pdf and try to view it. Ideally I want it as a scrollable webpage that I can view effectively on a number of different devices which also helps out those with accessibility needs as described above It also makes the document much more searchable, especially for the regular user dipping in and out of the manual. And as an added bonus, all additional content contributes to your SEO strategy so why keep it only in a pdf? A pdf you can share externally and often without internet access once downloaded, so use both formats.

If you are looking for a company to help you create technical user documentation, then RainDance can help – contact them today for a proposal.


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