Documentation

The Ultimate Guide To Writing an Instruction Manual (In 9 Simple Steps) 

Delight your users with easy-to-read instruction manuals that give them all the information they need on how to use your product.

Introduction

Despite working on your go-to-market strategy for months, your product launch isn’t seeing the success it deserves. Prospects are dodging your marketing efforts with uncanny finesse, existing customers are leaving bad reviews on your app store and the overall sentiment isn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows. Sounds like your worst nightmare, right?

Now, before you take a deep dive into the rabbit hole of analysis, ask yourself this. Can the average person get the hang of your product with zero guidance? If you’ve answered no, you need to focus on customer education. 

This is where instruction manuals come in. Also known as user manuals or user guides, they seamlessly guide users through ‌your product features. A typical instruction manual covers everything one needs to learn about operations, troubleshooting, functionalities and FAQs, helping end-users realize the maximum potential of your product.

But how do you write one that keeps your users hooked while guiding them through each product feature? Read on to find out. 

8 steps to write an effective instruction manual 

Creating an instruction manual is no easy feat. Let's face it, users often lose patience and give up on the learning process when they see huge walls of text and technical jargon that makes no sense to them. 

If you want your customers to feel connected to your product and leverage all its features, you need to put a concerted effort into creating a user guide that answers all their questions. 

Keeping this in mind, here’s a 9-step guide to writing a comprehensive instruction manual your users will love. 

1. Understand your objective 

Writing an instruction manual without an objective in mind is like trying to find a destination without a route — it seldom works out. So, think long and hard about why you’re writing the manual. Is it to help users use your product more effectively to troubleshoot problems?

It’s important to know exactly what you want to cover in your instruction manual so you don’t fall prey to information overload. You can create an Excel sheet with three columns and group them based on priority, like this:

\begin{table}[] \begin{tabular}{lll} Must include & Should include & Can avoid \end{tabular} \end{table}

You can also double down on your objective by creating detailed user personas that dive into audience pain points. Personas help you understand what users expect out of an instruction manual. 

Never created a user persona? Use these questions as a starting point:

  • Who is your user? What is their profession?
  • How old are they?
  • What’s their gender and where are they based? 
  • What tasks do they perform most frequently? 
  • What kind of technical experience, qualifications, education, training, knowledge or skills do they have?
  • What tools are available to them?
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If you don’t have definitive answers to these questions, don’t fret. You can leverage surveys, magazines, online forums, social media and focus groups to interact with your users and gain their perspectives. So you focus on what’s important to them.

2. Look for inspiration

Based on your findings from the previous step, you can zero in on what information your users are looking for. 

But how do you present it?

Simple — just take a look at what your competitors are doing. Analyze their instruction manuals and note the language and formatting used. But don’t rely on them completely. At the end of the day, you’re writing the manual for your product, not theirs. 

Here’s an example of an instruction manual that helps users learn how to use Skype Manager. 

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Skype has broken down the entire process into actionable steps that are easy to follow. They’ve also provided links where necessary, added images to complement the text and used a nice shade of bright blue to give some relief to the eye. 

Similarly, there are a ton of other user manuals to reference in your industry — likely speaking directly to your user personas. 

3. Get more information about the product 

Just like how you can’t whip up a complex dish without a recipe, writing a manual without having enough product information isn’t feasible. Do your research. Make an active effort to learn more about the product in question. Here’s how:

  • Put yourself in the user's shoes: Take yourself through your product’s user journey — from start to finish. This hands-on approach will give you a better understanding of the roadblocks users may face during product operation. 
  • Ask questions: Talk to SMEs, developers and engineers who have worked with the product. Be cautious while choosing your questions. If you want the right answers, you need to ask insightful questions that hit the nail on the head. To do this, you’ll need to read up on the subject matter so you aren’t left at a loss of words if your interviewee throws an unfamiliar term at you.
  • Read up before the interview: Get some background information of the expert you’re interviewing. You can either pull up their Linkedin profile or look for previous interviews or articles they’re associated with. 
  • Build a rapport with the interviewee: During your interview, make a conscious effort to be friendly to put the other person at ease. This way, they’ll be more forthcoming with information. Don’t forget to record the conversation for future reference! 
  • Cross-check the information: Finally, ensure the information’s accuracy by double-checking the terminology, sequence of actions, flow, and language used. 

4. Create an outline

At this point, you’re going to have a truckload of information to sift through. Collate all the relevant data, information, processes and checklists into a single document. You can then organize this data into a coherent framework, making it easier to refer to down the line. 

Post-its, mind mapping and information mapping will come in handy here. Use a centralized theme and branch out from it with different topics, categories and goals. This will help you develop a sequential outline that seamlessly moves from one section to the next.

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Now, divide each section into smaller chunks of content. Number each part and add a heading that outlines its content and steps in detail from start to finish. Integrate appropriate structure and vocabulary for a smoother information flow. 

5. Start writing

You’ve narrowed down your objective, gathered information and created an outline. Congrats! The hardest part is over. You can finally start stitching it all together. 

The following steps will guide you along the way. 

  • Create a Google document and start writing: Use your outline as a guide while writing each section. Remember, it’s best to avoid fancy words and lengthy sentences in your manual. Keep it short and sweet.
  • Focus on language simplicity: Avoid using technical jargon, and make sure what you write can be understood by people without industry knowledge.  
  • Develop a style guide and follow it to the T: This will help you write more cohesively and maintain a consistent tone of voice and style throughout the document. Write each step in an active voice so that it’s easy to understand and follow for users. 
  • Write in sequential order: Though you can develop sections in any order, it’s best to start with the introduction to ensure a sequential flow. Here, you can thank the user for choosing your product and give them a general overview of its features.  
  • Use actionable steps: Once you’re done with this, you can move on to the body of the manual. Here you’ll give users step-by-step instructions on how to complete each task. Perform each step as you write it down to understand your users’ journey as they read the manual. 
  • Follow a design template: Use a layout with clear divisions and plenty of white space to make it scannable. Make sure the font is large and easy to read. 
  • Add the finishing touches: For your conclusion, include contact information, warranty details and disclaimers. A section for frequently asked questions and a troubleshooting guide will also prove extremely useful. 
Scribe top tip: No matter what, don’t skip out on the table of contents. This is what will help your users navigate to the task they want to complete with minimum hassle. To help users understand the scope of each section, make sure you include meaningful headlines to provide a clear organizational overview of your user manual. 
Develop your table of contents as you write each section. This allows you to be more flexible and rearrange sections easily. 

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Avoid abbreviations and acronyms at pretty much all costs. In some cases — where users are already aware of the meaning — you might get away with adding a few. But make sure you have a glossary or footnote. 

Don't add promotional or sales-y content either. The user has already bought your product, so marketing messages are pointless and potentially frustrating. 

6. Add visuals

Humans are visual beings. In fact, up to 90 percent of the information our brains receive is visual. Not only is visual content easier to understand, but it also helps users retain information and learn quicker. A colorful and visually-rich document will easily triumph over a plain one.

Try to place all your illustrations near the related text. This improves readability and helps users better grasp the instructions. Text and illustration should compliment one another, so neither looks out of place.

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You can also use tables to organize numeric data. It’s much easier to read — users can get a complete snapshot of all the information in one go. Videos and illustrated animations are also great options for visuals since they’re more interactive and easy to consume. 

Make sure you use plenty of photos, infographics and even GIFs to improve reading comprehension. If you want to make things a little easier for yourself, use tools like Scribe to automate the whole process. 

Scribe is a step-by-step guide generator that documents your workflow for you, including screenshots. You can easily share or embed a Scribe in any knowledge base — here’s one in action. This Scribe on how to edit a Sharepoint page only took two minutes to make.

7. Test it out

How do you find out whether you’ve created a user-friendly instruction manual? Just get it reviewed. You could request a colleague — who isn’t familiar with the process — to perform basic tasks with the guidance of your manual and see how they fare. 

Ask them to rate the experience from one to ten. If you receive a low score, get feedback on what you can improve.

You can also create an online survey and beta-test the manual before general release. Getting input from engineers and developers on the internal team is also helpful. Considering they’re the real experts on the product, you’ll be able to gain real insight into what you might have overlooked. 

8. Finalize the instruction manual

Once you’re done with testing, it’s time to get a stamp of approval. But before you do that, give it a thorough check and make sure your document is error-free by carefully proofreading it for spelling, grammatical errors, punctuation, factual accuracy and information flow. 

Though the main purpose of an instruction manual is to give users comprehensive information on the product, it should be simple to read at the same time. So, check your readability score using online tools like Hemingway

Finally, you must ensure that your instruction manual is legally compliant. The legal needs for your instruction manual’s content, presentation and format can vary depending on the product.

For your product to meet international standards, you’ll need to comply with the legal requirements in your country. This will help you avoid court issues, decrease your liability and guarantee that your users will safely use your product. 

Follow these three steps while ensuring legal compliance:

  • Identify legislation (laws/directives).
  • Identify standards.
  • Identify legislation requirements and standards that apply to your product.

9. Keep updating the information

As your product evolves into a technical powerhouse with new and improved features, you need to make sure your instruction manual keeps up with the updates. 

Make it a habit to connect with the R&D team every week to understand if there are any new developments in the pipeline. This will give you enough time to plan additions to your user manual. 

Though constantly updating your instruction manual may sound like a hassle, it’s a necessary evil. 

Fortunately, Scribe Pages can help simplify the process. It allows you to create comprehensive process documents with text, hyperlinks, videos and more.

The best part? You can have multiple Scribes (step-by-step guides) in one document and keep adding more as your product develops. 

Create instruction manuals in no time with Scribe

Great instruction manuals can massively improve the user’s experience and reduce the burden on your support team. An effective instruction manual is simple, concise and aesthetically appealing. 

But creating one can often be an uphill battle, considering how much research, writing, design and editing is involved. 

With Scribe, you can create visual instruction manuals within minutes. So what are you waiting for? Sign up for free.