User guide templates | Writing tips

Writing a user guide doesn't have to be a headache. Instead, it can be an exciting part of the product development process, and help you see your product from the point of view of your customers. Whether you develop software or physical goods, a great how-to document will help users become experts, and hopefully devoted customers.

This post will provide you with some guidelines for producing a great manual, and links to templates to help you get started.

Why should I use a template?

If you've ever opened up Microsoft Word or a similar application, you probably stared a bit at the blank page. After typing a few words, you realize that it looks dull without some sort of formatting, and then spent hours fiddling to get things looking right. Such issues are best handled by starting with a professional template.

Download a professional user guide template >

User guide templates provide a standard structure for your document, as well as consistent formatting. By starting with one, you'll likely have a much easier time fleshing out the details.

Gathering information

The ultimate success of your manual depends heavily on accuracy. If you fail to correctly document how a product works, users will lose faith in the reliability of the guide and stop referring to it. Also, such mistakes can be dangerous and/or expensive for the user.

To ensure that your manual is accurate, refer constantly to the product as you write. Test each section of content against the actual product (or at least the specs) and watch for errors where the text doesn't match how the product works. Also, ask your SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) about any inconsistencies that aren't immediately clear to you. Often they can clarify how the product operates and make suggestions for improving the documentation.

When you have a clear picture of how the product is used, start outlining the tasks users will complete. An outline will ensure that your manual is thorough, and ease the writing process. You may wish to show your outline to SMEs and have them verify that all tasks are included. If you feel comfortable in your knowledge of this information, you are almost ready to start filling out the details.

Your manual will begin to take shape as you fill in the details based on your outline.

Format and structure

A user manual should be accurate and informative, but it should also be easy to navigate, so that readers can find exactly the information they need. The format and structure should engage readers who want a broad overview so they can develop expertise as well as those who are looking for a single answer to a specific question.

Manuals are commonly structured as follows; however, you can vary the layout based on the individual needs of your users and the product you are documenting.

  • Cover
  • Title page
  • Copyright information
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter 1
  •   Chapter summary
  • Chapter 2
  •   chapter summary
  • Additional chapters
  • Appendices
  •   Troubleshooting
  •   Reference tables
  • Glossary
  • Index

Such a layout provides a clear learning path for new users of a product. Also, it offers plenty of reference material to help users quickly find answers to specific questions.

Optionally, you may want to include a feedback form in your document so that users can tell you if you are hitting the mark. The more feedback you receive, the better your chances of providing a thorough document that satisfies the needs of your users.

When you organize your chapters, methods such as card sorting may be helpful. You want to provide concepts in a way that facilitates learning. Basic concepts should precede advanced concepts. Write your chapter titles on index cards and ask a product expert to sort them into the appropriate order. You may wish to do the same with the section headings within chapters.

The writing process

Most user manuals are a balance of procedures, reference material, and troubleshooting information.

Procedures guide consumers through each task that can be performed with the product. Tasks are stepped out into simple, ordered instructions.

The key to writing high-quality procedures is to analyze the task from a user's perspective and break each part of the process into a clear and simple command. Also, be sure to consider any issues that may arise depending on the goals of each type of user.

When writing your procedures, be sure to consider any danger or risk involved in each step. Protect consumers by including warnings when appropriate, and make sure such warnings are located where users will see them BEFORE performing the step.

User manuals often serve as reference materials. Not many consumers are likely to read an entire manual prior to using the product. Therefore, your reference information must be easy to locate, and clearly presented.

For this reason, most well written user manuals include tables, technical illustrations, and other types of content that are easy to scan. Such content is easy to absorb, especially by consumers who are visual learners.

Many user guides include a Frequently Asked Questions section. By providing answers to common questions, you can vastly reduce consumer frustration and possibly lower the number of incoming Support calls your company receives.

Adding graphics to your user manual

As you write the content for your manual, consider whether the subject matter would be best presented as text or a graphic. Text descriptions of product components and how they work together are often confusing, especially for complicated machines. A graphic may show the relationship of these components more clearly than text.

When adding an image, choose a file format that preserves the clarity of the image and can be imported easily into your publishing or word processing software. You may also wish to consider file size of the image, especially if the user manual will be downloaded; large image files will result in large documents. GIF files are fine for screenshots with limited colors. PNG files also result in a small file size. For photos, try JPG files.

For clarity, consider adding callouts and captions for your images. A callout points to a particular part of an image and provides an explanation. A caption is a brief summary of the entire graphic.

Some user manuals also include a table, appendix, or section in the Table of Contents that lists all of the images in the manual. This is useful for large documents that contain many images.

Navigation

Even well written user manuals can be neglected if consumers can't find the information they seek.

Preface your manual with a table of contents, and include an index at the end. Also, add cross-references to related information. That way users can quickly refer to information that is relevant to the task they wish to complete.

Such navigation aids can often be generated automatically from your word processing software. However, you may wish to make adjustments. The best navigation aids come from careful thought about what most users will be looking for, as well as a thorough understanding of how the document is organized.

Reviews

Formal reviews are vital for writing high quality user manuals.

You can distribute review copies in print or electronically, depending on the preferences of your reviewers. Electronic distribution, such as a Word DOC file, allows your reviewers to insert comments easily. Also, the comment tracking features allow you to see the source of each comment when multiple reviewers work in the same file.

Paper copies, on the other hand, allow you to maintain a paper trail for audit purposes. Also, some writers simply prefer to incorporate edits from a printed copy.

When choosing reviewers, think a bit about the kind of feedback you will get from each reviewer. Include at least one developer, a Support representative, and the project manager. If you work on a team of writers, have another writer review the guide, or do a quick pre-review pass.

Developers will likely give feedback about how the product functions, and correct for any recent changes in the specs. Be sure to verify that such enhancements will make it into the product when it is released.

Support representatives also tend to give detailed feedback on functionality. Additionally, their frequent contact with consumers allows them to point out common trouble areas that can be clarified in the user manual.

Project managers often have the authority to give you a final answer on pending questions, and sort out conflicting reviews. Also, they can assist with scheduling the final delivery date for the manual since they are responsible for managing the entire project.

Preparing for delivery

If you've written your manual with constant consideration of your users, you should now have a highly useful document to deliver.

Before delivery, be sure that all interested parties have signed off on the document and that all review comments were incorporated. Then, carefully flip through the document and scan for any formatting issues.

After delivering your manual for printing or shipment, take time to celebrate your hard work. Then, get ready for future updates, because R&D is likely planning product enhancements for the next release.

Hopefully these tips will help you produce documentation your users will enjoy and find highly informative.