User Manuals That Make Sense

My daughter was having trouble with a new phone she had just upgraded to. She was getting really frustrated and angry, because it was not doing what she wanted it to do and she couldn’t figure out how to fix it.

I asked if she had read the user manual that came with it. Her response was a shocked look on her face as she said, “I never read user manuals.” And, you know, a lot of people have that attitude. The reason is that most user manuals are simply not confrontable. The bad ones tend to be:

  • Too long
  • Too complex
  • Too confusing

The Two-Step Approach

When someone picks up a new device, or loads a new software program onto their computer, the last thing they want to do is spend the next 4 or 5 hours studying up on how to use it. Come on! It’s a “new toy”, so they want to play with it RIGHT NOW.

A great way to handle this, which a lot of manufacturers do these days, is to give the user a “fast-start” manual. In fact, if you are talking about printed manuals here, make it a separate little booklet with just a few pages. It’s the two-step approach:

  1. The fast-start manual to get them going.
  2. The detailed manual with all the rest of the functions and instructions.

The fast-start manual should give them just enough to get them USING their new toy. Don’t go into any detail at all on the functions and capabilities. Let them start to have some fun with it and let them come back for more when they run into trouble, or when they would like to expand their usage.

Some users will never pick up the more detailed user manual. They will be content to use whatever functions are covered in the fast-start section, plus what they figure out for themselves. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Many people are quite happy using only 20% of the capabilities of their equipment.

But for those who do want to know more, the detailed manual should cover it all. In this area the best approach is to cover it by function. Take a functional capability of the device or system and go through the way it is used, step-by-step. Make sure you give any external references, like support websites, that would be of help to them.

Format and Style

The format, of course, should include lots of graphic illustrations and pictures. You should also spread it all out with lots of white space and with liberal use of headings, sub heading, bullets, numbers, etc.

Be sure to put a fully comprehensive table of contents and index into it. When someone picks up the detailed user manual, they are not intending to read it all. They are generally looking for answers to a specific problem or function. You need to make it easy for them to find what they want.

The writing style should be as simple and as direct as possible. This is not a philosophical thesis that will be scored on how many fancy words you use. It’s just the opposite, in fact; you will get top marks from the readers for NOT using fancy words. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs small. It all helps to smooth the way and make it easy for people to comprehend.

The acid test is to give your draft to a 12 year old and ask them if they find any of it difficult to understand. If they do, simplify those sections.