Documentation

Decoding Quick Reference Guides: Examples, Benefits, Types & Tools

Choose the right type of quick reference guide to pave a path for organizational success and empower employees to learn more, with minimal effort.

Introduction

Let’s be real, while training manuals are an essential part of any product package, they’re often dense, hard to start… and even harder to finish. 

Need to learn (or teach) the ropes in just a few pages? A quick reference guide in your arsenal makes it easier than ever. 

Think of these guides as product cheat sheets, giving users need-to-know information without delving into the murky details. 

Generally spanning one or two pages, they have all the information a reader needs to complete core product-related tasks. Needless to say, this comes in handy while training employees on new organizational processes. 

Quick reference guides don’t all fit into one mold. They vary depending on the situation. There are several types of guides you can create, and in this article, we’re going to discuss the popular ones.

Excited? Us too! Let’s get started.

Benefits of using a quick reference guide

Whether you’re looking for an easy way to train customers and co-workers or learn how to use a product yourself, you need a quick reference guide. A few benefits include:

1. Simple to understand and use

While learning how to use a new product, would you rather learn from a 200-page document or skim through a couple of pages? It’s a no-brainer. Short and crisp guides are always easier to consume when compared to a comprehensive product manual. 

A quick reference guide condenses all the essential information regarding how to use a product into tiny bite-sized sections, making it easier for readers to understand core processes. 

2. Doubles up as great handouts

Quick reference guides are short documents by nature. So they’re easy to print and laminate. 

You can offer handouts to trainees and send with the purchased product. Users can reach for their quick reference guide whenever they face a roadblock. 

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3. Reduces costs

Hiring an expert to train employees on how to use a product or tool can cost big bucks. Alternatively, if you ask another employee to take charge of the training process, they won’t be able to focus on high-value tasks, leading to lower business productivity. 

Quick reference guides reduce dependencies on in-person training, thus reducing costs and enhancing operational efficiency. 

4. Improves brand integrity & company culture

Users who understand your product are more likely to use it consistently, trust your brand and become long-lasting ambassadors. Customer retention is the name of the game. Clearer guidance can create a thoroughly satisfied user base. 

For employees, a quick reference guide works to align teams toward results. Quality guides can help beginners learn core business tasks to provide adequate support to co-workers and collectively work towards the company’s vision.

Types of quick reference guides

From product setup to ongoing use, many situations call for a quick reference guide. However, the format of the guide will vary according to its purpose. 

Here are five quick reference guides you’re bound to come across. 

1. Quick start guide

This is one of the most common quick reference guides. When you’re getting a user started with the product, you want them to be able to set up and use it as quickly as possible. 

Quick start guides provide quick product onboarding information to get everything up and running. 

2. Product updates

Got new features? When introducing new functions and updates, you must equip your users to adapt to change. 

Document what’s new, what it means and how to use it. You can send these out as release notes, newsletters or even as physical documentation. 

3. Step-by-step how-to guides

Sometimes the easiest way to teach a process is to run through it yourself. How-to guides are detailed instructions on how to execute every step. They’re usually supported by screenshots to visually represent the workflow. 

With a step-by-step guide, make sure you’re using consistent sentence structures. For instance, have each start with a verb (create a folder, click on the left button). 

Scribe top tip: Want to create instant how-to guides? With Scribe, you can auto-generate process docs complete with text, screenshots, and links. 

4. Installation guide

Avoid common pitfalls during product installation. There’s a guide for that!

An installation guide enables users to install, uninstall or update software. It also documents the prerequisites to cover before installation, hardware requirements and other software needs.

5. Cheat sheets

These are one-page documents that summarize the key aspects of using a particular product. 

They’re highly effective at helping employees remember important information and learn new processes. Cheat sheets often provide information on how to use products from start to finish. 

Tools you can use while creating quick reference guides

While many prefer the traditional pen and paper method — it’s just not a scalable option. 

What’s the alternative? Online tools allow you to create interactive layouts where you can insert text and images. 

Here are four popular examples:  

1. Microsoft Word

One of the most readily accessible tools in the list, MS Word is a classic choice for creating a quick reference guide. Start populating the page with a few columns. You can do this by clicking the “columns” option on the layout tab. 

Once complete, you can start adding text. If you run out of space in one column, it will automatically add text to the next one. To stop this from happening, simply add a column break. 

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2. QuarkXPress

Feature-rich and easy-to-use, QuarkXPress is an ideal option for those just dipping their toe into creating quick reference guides. The tool is easy to learn and allows users to create multiple layouts in one document. It’s a one-time purchase, so you won’t be bothered with recurring payments. 

Regarding shortcomings, the tool’s typographic and layout feature is slightly outdated. It also doesn’t come with layering capabilities like opacity and layer modes. 

Adobe InDesign

Although the above tools are great options to consider if you’re looking to create a basic quick reference guide, you’ll eventually find yourself wanting more control in the creative process. Adobe InDesign will give it to you. Not only does it allow you to choose exactly where your text goes, but you can also customize various elements with different colors, strokes and widths. 

In cases where your guide is picture-heavy, you can embed Photoshop and Illustrator files directly into your InDesign workspace without bothering to convert them into JPG or GIF formats. 

Though InDesign gives you a lot of control over the quality of your guide, it is slightly more difficult to use and you’ll have to invest considerable time and energy to learn the tool inside and out. It’s also significantly more expensive than the other tools, with a monthly subscription fee of $29.99. 

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4. Scribe

Turn any process into a visual step-by-step guide. Scribe is a browser extension and desktop app that captures your screen to document each action you take. Simply click “record” and then walk through your process. Scribe will instantly create your guide, complete with texts, links and screenshots. Edit, redact and even brand your guides in seconds. 

Easily onboard customers and employees, and provide ongoing product support. Scribes are as easy to use as they are to make. Share via a single click or embed into any knowledge base. 

With Free, Pro and Enterprise plans, Scribe is loved by teams across tens of thousands of organizations – from technology startup unicorns like Human Interest to Fortune 500 companies like LinkedIn.

Conclusion

From quick set-ups to product updates, quick reference guides are almost always the answer. They reduce costs, ensure business continuity and amplify operational efficiency. 

While creating your own guide, you want to choose the right tool. Create a list of pros and cons of each tool and analyze which would be the best fit for you. 

If you’re planning to pepper your guide with visual elements — like screengrabs and GIFs —  check out Scribe. All you need to do is record your workflow to automatically convert it into a guide. No extra effort necessary.