How to Build the Best User Manual

Ryan Knott

Marketing Content Strategist

How to Build the Best User Manual

Table of contents

We all know that person that instinctively tosses the user manual out with the packaging without so much as a second glance. Some of us are that person. However, if you follow the process laid out in this blog, the user manuals you create will turn those user guide tossers into devoted readers in no time.

It’s important to note that, although you are required by law in some industries to create and distribute user manuals for your products, compliance isn’t the only reason that you should creating these important communication tools. 

When written and created with intention, a user’s manual can act as an extension of the customer service experience, and save your company time and money by reducing the amount of support inquiries that users have to make. 

In this article, we’ll look at what a user manual is, explore the various types you can create, and lay out exactly how to write user guides that your users are eager to put to good use.

What is a user manual?

A user manual goes by many names. You may hear terms like instruction manual, user guide, maintenance manual, or technical documentation but they all mean the same thing. A user manual is designed for an end user to use your product or service properly or to find solutions to problems that arise through use. They can be provided in either print or digital format or both!

Use manuals contain detailed, step-by-step instructions for the end user and also allow for some support in troubleshooting. They are not meant to be read from cover to cover, but as reference books, so a table of contents should always be included in a user manual. 

A quickstart or startup guide should be included in your user guide so that people can easily feel comfortable beginning to use the product. 

Image of a user manual with steps and a pencil.

What are the different types of user manual?

User manuals can be created for many topics and purposes. Let’s take a look at some of the options you have to choose from. 

1. Instruction Manual

An instruction manual is a type of user guide that provides basic instructions for how to use a product in its intended way. 

2. Training Manual

This type of user manual provides a set of instructions related to the completion of a specific task, project or job.

3. Service Manual

User manuals that outline how to care for and maintain a piece of equipment or machinery at various points in its life are referred to as service manuals.

4. User Manual

User manuals are technical documents that communicate about the proper use or operation of a product. 

5. Operation Manual

Operation manuals outline the roles, responsibilities and processes pertaining to a company or organization. 

6. Organizational Policy Manual

The documentation outlining a company’s policies, procedures and best practices is called an organizational policy manual.

7. Standard Operating Procedures(SOPs) Manual

A standard operating procedures manual helps users by outlining specific instructions for completing established procedures. 

Easily create a user guide

Snagit is the fastest way to create beautiful user guides. Create step-by-step guides with a simple and professional look

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Illustration of a how-to guide made with snagit

Why does your business need user manuals?

A user manual equips people to solve problems without having to seek outside help. In our instant gratification driven society, it is important to provide your patrons with the tools to quickly and efficiently get the benefit they want from your product or service, and a good user manual can accomplish just that! 

Statistic that reads: 70% of people would rather use  company's website for help vs. phone or email.

User guides are a much-needed supplement to excellent customer service. Some of the benefits your business will see from writing great user manuals include:

1. To Simplify Onboarding and Training

Well crafted user manuals can simplify your onboarding and training processes. That’s right, your employees can benefit just as much as your customers from the creation and implementation of excellent user guides. 

Instead of exclusively organizing complicated in-person training sessions, which carry high costs in both time and money, your business can utilize user manuals to help new employees work through some of the processes and systems that are part of their new jobs. This can mean that there are fewer productive hours lost during onboarding, as employees are able to learn while completing the tasks associated with their jobs thanks to the user manuals.

2. To Decrease Support Costs

User manuals are an excellent supplement to your customer service experience for the end user but they are also beneficial for the business owner as a part of the customer support system as well. 

By providing easy access to a searchable user guide for your customers you increase their ability to access solutions in the moment and reduce the necessity to reach out for specific support from a technician or representative.  

3. To Save Time

User guides help save time for your customers as well as your employees – from entry-level to management. When user guides are accessible to your customers they will not suffer the frustration of time wasted searching for details about how to use a product – because they have direct and immediate access to the details within the user guide.

When your employees are empowered with effective user guides they don’t have to waste time searching for answers independently or taking up their colleagues’ and supervisors’ time with questions – because they have access to the answers right in their user manual!

4. To Reduce Liability

Writing and distributing user manuals is one way to help illustrate that you have done your due diligence in testing your product and how best to interact with it safely. This can go a long way in reducing any liabilities associated with creating something for the public.  

If the product you sell could pose a danger to users (think space heaters, power tools, etc…) having warnings and safety precautions documented and available to users by way of a user guide is an effective (though not foolproof) way to avoid legal trouble associated with injures or other damage caused by misuse. 

What are the essential elements of great user manuals?

Even though each product is unique and will require different elements to create truly great user docs, there are some end user documentation best practices to follow no matter what.

Image of a user guide that has a searchable tab for easier navigation.

1. Plain language

Aside from not providing a user manual, nothing will make your customers more frustrated than finding theirs full of jargon and inaccessible language. These language choices make your user guides difficult to use and they certainly don’t foster an excellent customer service experience. 

An important part of writing effective user manuals is making sure you are writing for the user, not the developer. Don’t make assumptions about what your end user might know or be familiar with. Using acronyms, buzzwords, or slang used around the office will leave your customers feeling confused, frustrated, and ill-equipped.

Striking a balance where you are not writing as if your users are children (unless of course, they are!) but you are giving them the extra support that they need to fully understand how to use the product, in simple language, is the sweet spot for writing a user manual.

2. Simplicity

Simplicity is the name of the game when writing a user manual. Both the content and the design should adhere to this idea. Crowding your documentation with complicated illustrations, and dense blocks of text will give the sense that the user guide is too complex and inaccessible. 

This type of user guide has a high likelihood of intimidating your user and causing them to call your support line instead of attempting to solve their problem independently. 

3. Visuals

Image with various statistics that support the idea that visuals are effective at communicating information.

“Show, don’t tell” is a key philosophy in writing user manuals. Content like images, videos, and annotated screenshots go a long way in helping to understand a concept. Seeing how something works is often much more effective than reading about how something works. 

Not only do visuals break up long blocks of text, but they also eliminate some of the bulk of text that can make user manuals intimidating. 

Visuals are actually proven to absorb visual information 7% faster than written information. In a study completed by Techsmith, it was also discovered that 67% of individuals were able to complete tasks better when provided instructions that used annotated screenshots to convey information rather than text alone.

4. Focus on the problem to be solved

Your product was almost certainly purchased to solve a problem. When writing the user guide to accompany the product it is crucial to maintain focus on this problem. 

Rather than listing and describing each feature your product has, or the interesting design details you’ve integrated, let your users know about them in a way that supports their use of the product. Frame your description of features and product perks in the context of the problem being solved.  

5. Logical hierarchy and flow

Use a clear hierarchical structure of headings and subheadings to help the user understand what they will get out of each section of your user manual. The hierarchy you use should follow a logical flow to guide your customers easily through exactly what they need to know from beginning to end. 

Make sure to begin with the basics and build in a logical progression toward the more advanced features of your product. 

6. Table of contents

Your user manual will serve its readers best when it starts with a table of contents. 

It’s a familiar way for someone to efficiently and simply navigate a document without having to sift through pages and pages of information that isn’t relevant to the immediate challenge they are experiencing.  

7. Make it searchable

While you may create print copies of your user manuals, it is likely that your primary focus will be digital documentation.  In a world where most people carry a smartphone on them at all times it is highly probable that your user guides will be most widely used in a digital format. 

Like a table of contents helps to direct users to the appropriate place in a print document, adding a searchable component to your digital user manuals will support an enjoyable ease of use for users trying to solve a problem by accessing it. 

8. Accessibility

It is not unlikely that a percentage of the individuals who need your user manual could use additional support in having it perform optimally.  Accessibility requirements are law in many places, and good practice regardless of the legal obligation behind them. 

Ensuring that your user manuals adhere to accessibility standards is simply good customer service. Creating accessible content for users who may have visual impairments, hearing impairments, or cognitive disabilities is an important factor in designing user manuals. 

9. Good design

Design your user manuals with your customers in mind. If you create something that they enjoy looking at they will be much more likely to use it well! 

Allow for lots of white space and avoid long blocks of text. Pairing these two qualities can help reduce the potential for intimidating users and make the prospect of learning something new inviting rather than daunting. 

Adhering to the “show don’t tell” philosophy we discussed earlier works well here too! Using graphics and images to supplement text is a great option for either print or digital user manuals, with videos and GIFs adding interest and a supportive element to digital user guides. 

If your organization has a style guide your design should adhere to it, but if you are working without one it is important to maintain consistency throughout your user guide.  Font and color choices should remain consistent throughout the document, and ideally between all of your user manuals. 
You can use Snagit to help maintain consistency in your user guides by accessing the free templates it offers! Grab your free trial here to test it out.

10. Feedback from real users and/or beta testers

Unless you have asked for and listened to feedback from the individuals who will actually be using your product about the user manuals you have written, you won’t have an accurate sense of whether or not they are as effective as possible.  

You need to learn the pain points of your product’s users and make sure they are addressed in the user manuals you write. You may get some intel that seems very obvious but the opportunity is much greater for you to gain significant insight into the needs of the consumers you are striving to serve.  

It’s important that your user manuals offer opportunities for those reading them to easily access more information about your products. 

If your user manual is beng written for digital distribution you can add these links in through tutorials, FAQ sections, and user forums, among other options.

With physical copies of user documentation, these links can look like web addresses or phone numbers that readers can use to access more information.

Easily create a user guide

Snagit is the fastest way to create beautiful user guides. Create step-by-step guides with a simple and professional look

Download Free Trial
Illustration of a how-to guide made with snagit

How to create a user manual?

Creating a user manual is an important undertaking and can make a significant impact in your business and for the users you are looking to serve. It can be overwhelming but we’ve broken down the process of writing a user manual so you can simply follow along!

Image that outlines the 9 tips creators need to improve their user documentation.

1. Identify the users

Like any piece of communication you create, a crucial first step is identifying the person who will be on the receiving end.  

Identifying the user for your user manual will help you make good decisions about things like the tone, the amount of detail to include, and how to present the content.  

Writing a user guide for a tech developer is done very differently than writing one for your product’s end user. Identifying your audience is a make-it-or-break-it step.

2. Focus on the problem

User manuals are created to assist in solving a problem, or teaching someone to do something new.  It is necessary to identify exactly what your user manual is meant to accomplish and ensure that you keep your focus there.  

It can become tempting to expand the subject matter and cover many aspects of or potential uses for your product. This can cloud the actual solution that the user is in need of and cause frustration or calls to your customer service line. 

Focus on the specific solution your customer will need to have, whether they are an individual learning to use the product or a technician needing to repair it.

3. Use sequential steps in order

The instructions in your user guide should be presented in the sequential order required to complete the task at hand. Begin by listing each step in order.  Then, attempt to complete the task while following the specific steps you have laid out in the order presented.  

It is possible, likely even, that you will identify missing steps as you work through your initial list.  You may also discover that something you thought was one task actually needs to be broken down into a few tasks for the sake of clarity.  

Before you check this step off in your journey to write a user guide, make sure that you have provided a clear end result for each sequential step you have assigned. The readers should know exactly what they are looking to have completed and what it should look like the before moving on to the next step. 

4. Map user journey

The goal in writing a user guide is to understand how your customers intend to use your product and creating a way for them to easily do just that. 

You need to put in the work to understand the problem the user has or the goal they hope to reach in using your product as well as how they interact with your brand. These details will help you imagine the customer’s journey from problem to solution and map out the steps needed to get them through the process. 

5. Choose a Template

Developing a set of templates can make the job of writing and designing user guides significantly easier than you might think! It can streamline your process and make consistency a much more achievable goal.  

In addition to setting specifics like fonts (type and size), contrast requirements, and colorways, you’ll want to include the following in your user manual template:

  • Assigned space for an introduction
  • Clear sections and subsections
  • Your selected format for sharing sequential steps
  • Warnings and highlighted cautionings
  • Assigned space for a conclusion

6. Write simple and easy to follow content

The content of your user manual should be as simple and easy to follow as possible. Both the content and format need to be considered and reviewed for simplicity and ease.

Make sure that each step of the process explains only one task and uses language that is as concise and clear as possible.  Be sure to edit down your content as thoroughly as possible until you have arrived at a user manual with only the most essential information included. 

7. Treat all users as laymen

When writing a user manual, assume that the reader knows nothing about your product. Write as if you are communicating with a layman.  

All technical language and jargon should be avoided wherever possible. Of course there are occasions where it will be unavoidable but these should be the extreme exception.

8. Test instructions alongside the product using naive users

An important step in the process of writing a user manual is the testing. The choice of who to test on can change the results dramatically. 

Ideally, testing should be performed on individuals who have never used your product or viewed the manual before. Observe them working through the process and make note of where they get stuck as they progress through the user manual. The material should then be revised accordingly. 

Your testers should be able to navigate the use of the product with only the support of the user manual. They should not need to reach out for additional support. Everything they need should be in the ussr guide itself.  

9. Build content using a practical approach

Practical examples and specific explanations of results that users might have after completing each step in the user manual should be included wherever possible. The user should know what feedback they may receive from the product; what they might see or here at any step of the process.  

10. Explain symbols, icons and codes early

As you write a user manual you may need to use icons, symbols or codes to help give the instructions needed. It is important to define these as early as possible in your user manual in order to avoid any confusion or frustration on behalf of the reader. 

User manual FAQs

What is user documentation?

User documentation is content in the form of user manuals or user guides which serves to help end users successfully interact with a product.

What are the different types of user documentation?

User documentation has historically been provided as physical documentation, like booklets or manuals. Nowadays, user manuals are more frequently created and distributed digitally.

What is included in user documentation?

A user manual or user guide is written in plain language, with a focus on problem solving, and utilizes good design. I should contain a table of contents, follow a logical hierarchy and flow, and provide accessible content. A good user manual will also be searchable and be influenced by feedback collected from real users. 

How do you create a user document?

User manuals can be created in a few simple steps. First the goals of the user guide need to be established and a plan created that will allow those goals to be reached. Before being released, the user manual needs to be tested and have revisions made accordingly. Finally, the user guide should be kept up to date, with revisions being made as updates or new editions are incorporated.