A product user guide or manual can mean a great customer experience and a terrible one.
It guides the user's onboarding process, helping them understand the product and how to use it. Older customers can also refer to product guides to refresh their memories.
So, writing a user guide shouldn't be an option to bypass. Yet, many people either overlook or ignore the challenge of creating user guides.
In this post, we share details to help DevOps or Product teams understand a user guide and how to build external documentation for users.
What is a user guide?
A user guide or product guide is an instructional material that accompanies your product, service or system to help end users, well, use it. You might also call this end-user documentation, user manual, product manual or instruction manual.
The goal of a user guide is process documentation to help end users better understand your product/service with step-by-step user instructions (or assembly for physical products). A user guide's technical documents cover detailed information about a product's:
... and more. As such, it's the first document the user reaches before contacting your customer care. It also helps in new staff onboarding and as a manual for training.
Because they're technical documents, end user guides are written by technical writers. But they can also be written by product developers, project managers, programmer or technical teams with the help of knowledge base software.
What information do user guides have?
User guides are designed to be informative and help users understand a product. They cover all aspects of a product, including its design, operation, potential issues, problems and more. Some of the information common in business process documentation guides are:
- Product description content.
- Explanation of product features.
- Product installation and set up process.
- Product use cases.
- Potential product risks and how to solve them.
- Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).
- Product demos, video tutorials and walkthroughs.
- Troubleshooting tips and tricks.
- How-to articles.
The type of information a user guide contains depend on the type of product, type of user manual, User guide system and other considerations the writer might deem fit.
What are the major benefits of a user guide?
Here are a few benefits of creating user guides.
The first and major role of the user guide or process documentation is to provide step-by-step guides for product, service, or system use. This can benefit users, staff and in onboarding employees.
Positive customer experience
User documentation is part of customer experience. User manuals that are coherently written are helpful and easy to read and follow. They make your customers feel appreciated. Seventy percent of customers now expect a company's website to include a self-service application before they reach customer support. Great user guides contribute to your customer's satisfaction and overall product/service use.
User guides have important content that the customer support team can use as a point of reference to help solve your customers' problems. This can save them time and reduce customer care tickets and increase.
User manuals influence the user's impression of your brand. Providing customers with useful information and user-friendly layouts creates confidence and loyalty in your brand. Vague details turn off customers and make them look away to your competitors.
Staff onboarding & training
User documentation can help your staff understand your product/service better. New employees can study the material, and the customer service team can share links to user guides when responding to queries or building out FAQ resp. You can also use the product guides as reference materials for staff training.
What are the different types of user guides?
User documentation materials take many forms. For example, video game manuals tell you the buttons to push to shoot, Software documentation guides you on different purchase plans, lawn mower guides help start and use the engine, etc. Depending on your product, service, or system, the following are some common user guide types.
1. Instruction manual
A tutorial or instruction manual is a user guide that contains basic and important instructions telling users how best to use a product or service. It's like a product/service description but explains the concept, context of use, problems it solves, structure, design and other important elements.
2. User manual (how-to guide)
A manual is a step-by-step or how-to technical user guide that walks users through the operation of a service/product. It also provides ways of troubleshooting problems and solving issues. Many SaaS and software products create user manuals to help users/customers learn and use their products.
3. Training manual or tutorial
Training manuals or tutorials are a set of instructions with lesser detail than user guides or user manuals. They give users quick product overviews and how-to guides of basic features and functionalities. Tutorials are majorly designed for beginners, refreshers, onboarding new employees, or customer training.
4. Product tours
Developers can also make tutorials in the form of interactive product tours. These are detailed onboarding tours with the information imparted in sequencing events for customer or employee onboarding.
5. Tooltips & customer walkthroughs
When a product development team doesn't create a product tour, they create an alternative called an interactive walkthrough for every product feature. Instead of a predetermined product flow, walkthroughs involve popups that provide contextual help triggered by a customer's action on the product feature. Walkthroughs help them to build their product knowledge base simultaneously.
Most product documentation guides include frequently asked questions (FAQs) and their answers. Technical writers brainstorm or work with the customer service team to identify users' questions and problems and answer them. They explain the answers in detail, often with a combination of instruction manuals and text, images or videos.
Essential elements of user guides
What makes a good user guide?
Each product/service may be unique, but their user guides may share certain features for easy reference. The features of users guides are:
1. Plain language
A user guide should have clear, simple and easy-to-understand language in writing. Even technical product documents need an easy language to understand. Why?
Customers don't understand the technical language of products. So, the simplicity of the user guide language is important for a positive customer experience. Customers feel frustrated when they read things they can't understand. Using plain language, short sentences and simple words when writing a user guide make it easy to understand.
2. Document flow & logical hierarchy
The user manual needs a logical flow and hierarchy to give users an easy time finding content. This means including a table of contents, titles, headings, subheadings and document sections.
Including visuals in your user guide is how you catch a user's attention reading the manual. Without visuals, your user manual is just a long boring block of text. Not to mention, it's much harder to understand written instructions than to see the process in action.
Include visuals like videos, images, screenshots, diagrams, etc., to make the documentation interactive.
4. Searchable content
Initially, most user guides were printed, and users needed to scan-read them for information. Thanks to the Internet, you can make a user guide searchable for easy navigation. Also, delivering your user guide as a document in a digital knowledge base with a distinct and prominent search bar makes it easy to find. The document's search support and search bar should be able to predict search terms and deliver them as searched.
5. Relevance & focus
A good user guide must have clear topics and relevant information articles organized to deliver great user instruction. The topics in the user guide must make sense to the user, and the articles must be relevant to each user's needs. Having too many topics or sub-topic levels in product documentation can overwhelm users.
6. Feedback & reviews
You can't create a great user guide until you've listened to the people who've used the product/service (internally or externally). You need to use feedback to know what to include, what works and what to improve. So, actively seek user feedback on your product and consider their suggested improvements in the user guide.
7. Links to more resources
The user guide isn't the only resource or documentation you create for your users. Include links to other internal resources and pages to help users improve their product knowledge and get a great user experience. This can include links to a demo, website, tutorials, user forums, FAQs, phone numbers and others.
Examples of user guides in action
User guides are a crucial part of product development. They're a reference point for users to understand how to use a product. This is why user guides are also called knowledge base customer service in digital services or products.
Here are some examples of user guides in action.
Scribe: Process documentation
Scribe is a process documentation tool and knowledge base software for individuals, teams and companies. Scribe's user guides and knowledge base combine how-to guides, resources, blogs, videos, release notes, images and more. For example, this "Show how it's done" use case shows the whole process documentation steps, telling you everything you need to know to use Scribe.
Furthermore, Scribe Help Center answers all user questions about their product's use, with links and videos. Read more about it here: how to use Sribe to automate process documentation.
Scribe itself is a tool designed to write how-to guides for you. All you have to do is:
- Download and turn on the extension.
- Run through your process as usual.
- Watch Scribe work — in seconds the tool will auto-generate a step-by-step guide.
You can easily customize Scribes to match your brand, and then use Scribe Pages to combine your guides with video, images and more.
Google, the most successful digital company, is one of the best use cases for user guides. Whether it is Google Search Console, Gmail, Google Maps, Chrome, etc., Millions of people who land on Google services daily use their user guides. With thousands of tools and products, almost each of the company's products has a user manual and user documentation page. And the Google Help portal and community portal carry users' feedback, common questions and knowledge base.
Stripe is one of the best online payment processing services for businesses and individuals. Stripe also has one of the best user documentation and guides for its customers. Its clean and uncluttered user interface has a products page and resources page that immediately welcomes customers to the user guides with a prominent search bar. You're then taken to handy guides to learn more about Stripe and how to use it. Every resource section invites customers to explore Stripe's knowledge base and learn more.
Ahrefs is a renowned SEO software SaaS used to build links, conduct competitor analysis, research keywords, track site rankings and more. The Ahrefs' selling points are ease-of-use and user guide documentation, including their blog site for product and industry guides. Ahrefs Help Center is a repository of straightforward answers right from getting started with Ahrefs to how to use its API. The help center has a search bar for easy navigation. Ahrefs blog page also has detailed articles, case studies and more for user learning.
Microsoft is the most successful technology company for productivity software, Internet, personal computers and related services. Its brands include Microsoft Office, Windows, Microsoft 365, Internet Explorer (now Microsoft Edge), Surface laptops and more. It's also the best company with user guides and product documentation for all its products and services resources pages, installation manuals, instructions for use, product updates and training and code samples. The Microsoft Knowledge base, called Microsoft Docs, houses all kinds of articles and resources for all company products and services.
Read this article for more user guide examples.
Challenges of creating & socializing user guides
User manuals can be challenging and tricky to write. Why?
Large, long & substantial documents
A user manual is a user-oriented document that contains instructions (maintenance, operating, technical), descriptions, diagrams, flow charts, drawings and more. This means they need to focus on the problem and the detail of the instructions. Yet, writers often find it challenging to balance the two when writing user guides.
Time consuming to create
The process of writing a user guide is time-consuming. You have to get everything right, or your users will find difficulty using the product. You also have to review the guide, which also takes time persistently.
When writing user guides, you must be precise to make them useful to the user/customer, who'll only likely refer to them in moments of frustration. If the user fails to understand your guide during these moments of frustration, then what's the point? For example, if your product can run on multiple operating systems, you'll need more than one user guide version, or the user won't find it useful. A simple task on Mac may require a different approach on Windows or Linux.
Most products (especially SaaS) are constantly updated. So, when writing the manuals, you must leave room for updates. The problem is that you're not sure which part will be updated when at the point of writing. For example, a product's version of Windows 10 needs an update to work on Windows 11, which requires different system requirements.
Technical language & abilities
Most user guide writers have technical knowledge — developers, programmers, program managers, technical writers, etc. — and don't know how to write in simple language. Yet, users want the product guides in simple, easy-to-understand language. This makes writing great product documentation for a wide audience with differing technical abilities challenging.
How to create a user guide: 9 Steps to create a user guide
Here's a summary of important steps to include when creating a compelling and useful user guide.
1. Identify your users/audience
Who will use the guide? Identifying your audience should be the first thing you do when writing your user manual. This includes knowing their technical knowledge, demographics, needs, common problems or frustrations, requirements and related information. This will tell you how much detail your user manual should have and how to present the document in terms of form, style and language.
2. Focus on the problem
What's the aim or your user guide? All user manuals aim to solve a user's problem. You must identify what problems you want to address in the guide to position it as a solution to user problems. The guide should fix the problem rather than simply give users workarounds.
3. Use ordered or sequential steps
Every user guide is an instruction manual. And every instruction has steps to follow. So, break down your instructions into sequential steps in order, such as a numbered list, steps, etc. This organizes your guide so that it's easy to understand and apply. Also, keep one point per step to make the instructions easy to follow. Tell users what the completed step will look like before they move to the next step.
4. Map the user journey
How do users use your product? Find out the user journey and make your user guide to capturing every user's touchpoint along the journey. A user guide writer must see the product from the user's perspective to produce a user-based guide. Sometimes, you may need to categorize your users into segments based on their product use cases to develop a complete guide that caters to every use-case.
5. Choose or create a template
Your documentation needs to be consistent. This requires you to create a template for your user guides. If you have a user documentation software like Scribe, you can choose a user guide template and apply it consistently across all your user guides. The template you create or choose should be clear and easy to follow, with vital components such as:
- Introduction space.
- Sections and subsections.
- How-to and Sequential steps.
- Provision for links.
- Conclusion space.
Other consistent considerations are font size, text, background, contrast and color coding.
6. Simple language & easy-to-follow content
Can your users understand your content and follow it? Any content challenging to understand or follow isn't worth the user's time. If you understand your audience (users), you'll write your user guide content in simple language and a clear, compelling manner. Also, streamline your content to include only the most essential elements for the user's needs.
Language choice also means you treat all users as laymen when writing a user guide. You must assume that all users lack the technical background to use the product, avoiding jargon and specialist terms in the document.
7. Write concise & comprehensive
A user guide must be concise and comprehensive. Although it uses a technical writing style, it needs to be conscious of the user's needs. Here, you must focus on transmitting maximum detail in as limited content as possible. Do not be wordy on a process that needs a two-step procedure. But be comprehensive and explain every step in detail, figuring out each huddle a user may face.
8. Structure & format for easy readability
A well-written user manual needs a conscious structure or format for easy navigation, readability and convenience. Here are some suggestions to format your content.
- Divide the content into sections, titles, headings, subheadings and categories.
- Use bold and italics to separate different information.
- Use Capital words or underline what needs to be stressed.
- Create a table of content for the whole document and on each section for easy navigation.
- Number the steps and consider double columns for scan reading.
- Explain symbols, icons, graphs and codes early, so your users aren't left scratching their heads when using the content.
Creating a good structure is important to allow both easy navigation and scan reading.
9. Validate document steps & proofread the content
Before you release the document for use, you must test the instructions alongside the product, assuming you're a naive user or use naive users. If it works for a user who's never used the product before, then it's a good document. In the process, note where users get stuck and revise the content accordingly. Make sure that users can use the documentation without reaching out to support.
Use Scribe to start building your own user guides today
User guides are challenging to write, both for technical writers and programmers. Programmers understand the product but lack the test-language (not code) to explain it to users. Technical writers often have difficulties transcribing programming languages into plain words.
An alternative is to use Scribe product documentation software to automates the process of writing user guides.