How to Make a Great Quick-Reference Guide

A quick-reference guide provides your users with quick and easily accessible information. Learn how to make your own!

quick reference guide header image

Nearly every product requires some kind of documentation to help customers understand how to use it. Depending on the product, sometimes those user guides or product manuals can be hundreds of pages long with pages full of long blocks of text. 

In other words, they can be pretty daunting, especially for new users.

Obviously, you need documentation that covers everything your product can do. But sometimes your customers just want to know something without having to wade through a ton of content to find it. 

A quick-reference guide is a perfect way to provide your users with a wealth of quickly accessible information in an easy-to-digest, engaging way. 

What is a quick-reference guide (and why is it important)?

A quick-reference guide is any documentation that provides a one- or two-page set of condensed instructions on how to use a product. They can be highly detailed or very simple, depending on what’s needed. 

They are especially useful when a product or service has a number of different or advanced functions, but can be operated more simply, as well.

Quick-reference guides allow your users to quickly and easily find the information they need to perform a specific task or set of tasks.

For example, a few years ago, I upgraded my basic stove with a nicer, more advanced model. While the oven on the old stove was basically on or off with temperature settings, my new one came with all kinds of new features. There was a regular Bake setting, as well as Convection Bake, Roast, Bread Proof, and more. Additionally, the new one has buttons and a digital readout while the old one was just a knob you turned to turn it on and set the temperature.

Now, I’ve baked a loaf of bread or two in my day, but let’s be honest. Most of the time when I use my oven I’m heating up pizza rolls or toasting some garlic bread, so I mostly use the regular bake setting. 

Luckily, the manufacturer provided a quick-start guide (one of the most common types of quick-reference guides) to help me do basic baking. In a few short steps, I knew exactly what I needed to do to use the oven for its most basic function.

Then, when I wanted to work with the more advanced features, I could delve deeper into the full product manual. 

Quick-reference guides allow your users to quickly and easily find the information they need to perform a specific task or set of tasks. They don’t replace a full user manual, but they provide a fantastic supplemental way to deliver information. 

Thankfully Snagit makes it super simple to create a quick-reference guide.

Create a quick-reference guide!

Download a free trial of Snagit to quickly and easily make your own quick-reference guide.

Download a free trial

Here’s everything you need to know about making a high-quality quick-reference guide in no-time.

How to make a quick-reference guide

And, if you don’t have the right tools, this is where things can get really tricky. It can be time-consuming to try and put everything into a Microsoft Word document, for instance.

And if you don’t have access to a professional designer, ensuring your quick-reference guide looks great can be a bit daunting.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: When it comes to designing great content, Snagit 2020’s templates are my superpower.

When it comes to designing great content, Snagit 2020's templates are my superpower.

They provide professional-looking designs you can use to create quick how-to guides with drag-and-drop ease.

Snagit 2020 comes stocked with templates, but you can also download dozens more with TechSmith Assets for Snagit.

quick reference templates for Snagit 2020

Snagit templates allow you to create an array of different kinds of how-tos, process documents, tutorials, and more. 

But, for this example, let’s say I wanted to create a quick-reference guide for five of the most common tools in Snagit.

Step 1. Take your screenshots

First, take all the screenshots you need and make any annotations (arrows, text, etc.) you want to include in the graphic.

Step 2. Create your template

Then, in the Snagit editor, choose Create > Create Image from Template. 

The Basic 5 Steps Landscape Snagit template.

Step 3. Choose a template

Select the template you want to use. There are plenty of quick-reference guide templates to choose from. For this example, I chose the Basic 5 Steps Landscape. This template is intended as a step-by-step guide, but it’s perfect for this, as well.

Showing where to drag images from the recent captures tray to the template.

Step 4. Add images

From the tray at the bottom of the Snagit editor (the Recent Images tray), drag your screenshots to the placeholders in the template.

Showing how to resize and reposition the images added to the template.

Step 5. Resize images

Resize or otherwise adjust your screenshots as needed.

Step 6. Add written content

Add your descriptions in the corresponding sections in the space at the right of the template, and add a title in the title box.

And you’re done!

It probably took me longer to write out the steps than it did to create this little quick-reference guide.

Afterward, you can share save it, share out a link, or print it off to put on your desk.

Common types of quick-reference guides

Six common types of quick-reference guides. Content is repeated in the text below.

There are a number of different types of quick-reference guides, so you want to know exactly what your audience needs before creating one.

Does your audience need a fast and easy way to get started using your product’s most basic features? Then you want to create a quick-start guide.

Learn your audience's needs and expectations and then create the content they need to succeed.

Or, maybe they need a one-stop reference for understanding your software’s UX? How about a glossary of common terms? Or an overview of your product’s core features?

Or, imagine your users are moving from one piece of software to yours. What information might they need to make the transition easier? Think about things like differences in menu trees, icons, feature names, etc.

All of those things (and WAY more) can be accomplished with a quick-reference guide. 

But, obviously, all of those are very different applications. Learn your audience’s needs and expectations and then create the content they need to succeed.

  1. Quick-start guide
    Help your users get up and running quickly with your product.
  2. Core or basic task guides
    Similar to a quick-start guide, but offers an overview of how to use your product or service’s most basic or core features. 
  3. Guide to more advanced features
    Once your users are ready to take things to a new level, use a quick-reference guide to introduce them to other functionality or features.
  4. Guide to product changes
    Did your software recently update? Use a quick-reference guide to walk your users through the changes.
  5. Step-by-step how-to
    Got a process you need to explain? Show it!
  6. User manual for products with limited features or functionality
    If your product doesn’t require a huge manual, a quick-reference guide may be all the documentation you need.

Essential elements to creating a great quick-start guide

Know your audience and their needs

The more of these blogs I write, the more I become aware of consistent themes. Creating the content your audience wants (and not necessarily what you want to tell them) is one of the most consistent.

As noted in this article about how to create more effective customer education content, there are a number of ways to figure out exactly what that is, including online forums, customer surveys, or even from your own technical support staff.

Regardless of how you get it, delivering content your customers want and need will go a long way in ensuring the success of your quick-reference materials.

Simplicity is key

The whole point of a quick-reference guide is to make information easily and readily accessible, so be sure it’s simple to understand. 

Use visuals

Avoid huge blocks of text as much as possible Instead, use visual elements such as screenshots with markup, icons, or product photos — and just enough text to ensure your points are clear.

Include only essential information

Keep it to one or two pages. Don’t try to cover everything from your full user manual. Think about it — a quick-reference guide that needs a table of contents probably isn’t all that quick.

Choose the most important information to accomplish a particular task or that otherwise conveys what you want to show. Boil down complex concepts into their most basic form. 

Know what to leave in and what to leave out. Remember, you can always create another quick-reference guide to cover other important topics. 

Use a simple and easy-to-follow layout

If your quick-reference guide isn’t visually appealing and easy to follow, your users won’t find it useful. 

You don’t have to create a total work of art to make a good quick reference guide. Sometimes a simple screenshot annotated with arrows, text, etc. can be enough to get someone the information they need. 

Visual Content

I feel like I can’t emphasize this enough: Your quick-reference guide just won’t be as effective, engaging, and useful as it can be without good images, icons, screenshots, or other visual elements. 

Images draw the eye and help provide anchor points to your content, helping your users quickly and easily identify important points of information.

In fact, our Value of Visuals research found that people learn better with images and text vs. text alone. 

Infographic showing that 58% of people believe they remember information better when it's visual, that 67% of people complete tasks better when instructions are provided with visuals or video, and that employees absorb information 7% faster when communications are visual.

You can learn all about how valuable visual communication can be with this awesome infographic.

And, have you ever heard the terms a picture is worth a thousand words? Well, it turns out the best way to show something is to actually SHOW it. 

A good image can convey a ton of information and help reduce the text density of your content and make it more user-friendly. 

Quick-reference guide dos and don’ts

Not all quick-reference guides will be as simple as the one I created. Some will need more text, others will need more images. Some will need more complex layouts. Depending on the subject, it may be longer. 

There is a wide range of types of and uses for quick-reference guides, and it would be impossible to cover them all here. But, there are some common dos and don’ts that are pretty universal:

Quick-reference guide dos and don'ts. Text is repeated below the image.

Do

  1. Keep it as short as possible. One to two pages is best.
  2. Use visuals like annotated screenshots, icons, product or UX images, etc. 
  3. Use a sensible, easy-to-follow layout, with clear headings and subheadings as needed.
  4. Know your audience and what they need.
  5. Make it stand on its own. Users shouldn’t have to look in your manual to understand your quick-reference guide.

Don’t

  1. Cram in too much information. You’re not trying to fit your whole user manual into this one guide.
  2. Make your font sizes so small no one can read them without an electron microscope.
  3. Repeat information unnecessarily. 

Get started creating awesome quick-reference guides with Snagit 2020

Quick-reference guides are a great way to provide your users and customers with fast and handy instructions for the most common features of your product or service.

From screenshots and image editing to templates and image assets, Snagit 2020 makes it incredibly easy to create useful, engaging, and visually appealing quick-reference guides

Create a quick-reference guide!

Download a free trial of Snagit to quickly and easily make your own quick-reference guide.

Download a free trial

Ryan Knott

TechSmith Marketing Content Specialist. Geek. Science Enthusiast. Hufflepuff. Retired roller derby coach. On a mission to pet all the dogs. He/him/ A few things about me ... 1. Mildly obsessed with the movie Alien, 2. Two pibbles: Biggie and Reo, 3. Friend of ducks everywhere.

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