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User Manuals revisited - Part 2: Is there a right way?


I strongly believe there is! It's always easy and tempting to say something is wrong (as I did here) without offering a solution. With my personal quest for better manuals, I feel the solution is quite obvious and it's not rocket science. The simplest way I could put it is with two "stops": stop copy/pasting from your previous manuals and stop to think who your customers are and what they need (to know). Yes, it's so simple. Let's break it down, then.

Your better manuals are two "stops" away!

First of all, we are faced with a few limitations when constructing a manual - that is mostly to do with the European norm EN 82079-1:2012, which provides general principles and requirements for structuring user manuals. It identifies obligatory parts of the manual, including all safety related issues to be covered, but also defines font, style, terminology, graphics, etc. What it does not say, however, is that we should produce useless, boring, and unfriendly documents, right?

EN norms set frames, however, they don't say that we should produce useless, boring, and unfriendly documents, right?

The first step, then, must be to identify who your users are and what they bring to the table. We often hear the phrase user-focused, but that focus seems to end the moment companies finish designing your product. Well, be advised then, that a user manual IS part of the product and needs the same level of attention and focus as you offer to the product itself.

  • Are your clients professionals or amateurs?
  • What age are they?
  • Are they mostly women or men?
  • Why do they buy your product?
  • What functions do they mostly use?
  • What do they know about the product?
  • What's the minimum they need to know about the product?

How many technical writers ask these questions at all? Judging by the quality of what I have seen in my professional career and as a user, very few do. The reason for that seems quite obvious - it takes a lot of extra work and cost, two elements companies normally cut down on. I do believe, though, that good product documentation actually pays off. Imagine a page full of text in 10-point font and a page with clear graphics and readable instructions - which one will be more appreciated by the user and which will increase the chances of customer loyalty? Consider now all the money that marketing departments spend trying to communicate their message to clients - the internet, magazines, radio, TV - all without any guarantee they will be heard. At the same time, they have a direct channel of communicating with clients, user manuals, and the message they send is: "We don't really care about you once you bought our product" - Isn't that ridiculous?

Good product documentation pays off!

How about if this message is changed into: "Thank you for buying our product, we will do our best to help you get the most out of it". I have a feeling this approach could attract more clients on one hand and build a base of more loyal clients on the other. The good thing is we know how to achieve that goal. Once you define your group(s) of users - usually more than one - you can focus on what tasks they will want to perform using the product. Instead of describing all features from A to Z with the same attention, make sure you identify and describe core functions your clients will look for plus the ones they don't know yet but you feel they will benefit from. Grouping tasks for various user groups together will allow for easier navigation within the manual and better use of manual space.

...make sure you identify and describe core functions your clients will look for.

Your next step should be to understand how people learn to do things today - through videos. We all type the famous "How to install a window sill?" and there is always someone who shows you how to do it in a short online video. Why not take control of that channel? Direct links to short "How to?" videos within your manuals, ideally with QR marks, will surely be appreciated and widely used. I'm not even mentioning what a perfect place it is to advertise your new products or services, that is obvious, right?

There are plenty more smaller or bigger improvements each company can introduce in their manuals. There is no one way to arrive at the desired product documentation. The good news is, there are more and more companies specializing in designing such documentation that understand how it should be done and who are happy to offer advice. Just to reiterate, it is not rocket science and it will pay off in the long run.

I should probably say it in small print, but we are offering a quick review of your manual for free until end of August this year - unless we are flooded with them and the promotion will end sooner. :-)

 
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