You need to guide customers through your product functionality. Where do you start? Installation instructions? A troubleshooting guide? Feature description? The amount of work ahead of you is overwhelming.
Before you can put together a neat but comprehensive user manual, you’ll need to spend a lot of time defining priorities, talking to customer support and figuring out what your customers need (and not what you think your customers need).
But that’s not the only obstacle.
Creating a user manual that’s easy to follow is another challenge on your way.
Have you ever tried to assemble a drawer using the manufacturer’s instructions? If you’ve never had a couple of “unnecessary” details left after the work is done, you must have hidden talents. For some reason, user manuals are often confusing and fail to achieve their key purpose — create a seamless product experience.
We’re here to make the process of writing a user manual painless for you and everyone involved. Below we described different types of user manuals, highlighted their must-have features, broke down the project into digestible steps and provided a customizable user manual template for you to use as a starting point.
What is a user manual?
A user manual is a set of instructions that guide users through a particular product. It has many names:
Whatever name you choose, it’s an inevitable part of your external knowledge base. A user manual is written by a product team in collaboration with customer support, sales reps and a marketing team, with a final touch from an experienced writer.
Types of user manuals
User documentation isn’t limited to feature descriptions or installation guides. There are plenty of user manual types:
- Quick start guide.
- Feature overviews.
- Setup instructions.
- Service manual.
- Troubleshooting guide.
- Technical documentation.
- Developer documentation.
You may not need all of them, but good end-user documentation is always a combination of several types of user manuals.
Regardless of the complexity of your product and user experience level, a basic user manual typically includes at least three sections:
- Feature overview.
- FAQ section.
- Troubleshooting guide.
This is a solid starting point for every product team. If you offer additional features for tech-savvy customers, like API or webhooks, you’ll add API documentation, maintenance guides or other forms of technical documentation to your knowledge base.
You may omit setup instructions if you have in-app tutorials and welcome product tours built into your product interface.
User manual examples
Before we provide you with helpful tools and best practices for building your own user manuals, let’s look at some outstanding examples from other SaaS companies.
Scribe (yours truly!) is a user manual software that automatically captures digital processes and creates step-by-step guides that are easy to edit, share and collaborate on. You can embed your Scribes in your knowledge base or publish them right within Scribe Pages.
Why are we telling this? We’ve created detailed user manuals with the help of our own product! The Scribe Help Center is filled with auto-generated instructions, guiding users through every process inside the platform, from installing the product to managing the team’s access settings.
Smartlook is analytics software for product teams. That’s why Smartlook’s user manual focuses on technical details, like fix-it guides and integration setup walkthroughs.
The manuals are well-structured and searchable, making it easy for a user to find necessary information fast.
ClickUp, a project management software provider, offers a range of user manuals for customers with different product experience levels. For new users, there’s a very detailed overview of all product features and terminology.
Often, product teams focus on guiding customers through critical workflows within a product, but they forget to explain what the name of this or another feature or workflow actually means. ClickUp makes its interface more intuitive by guiding users through the key terms and concepts they’ll face when using the product.
7 Features of a good user manual
Whichever topics you cover in your user manual, the following features should always be present in the document.
A user manual must be easily accessible from your website and product interface. Link to it in the most prominent places so that users can turn to it whenever they have a question or face a problem.
You can also link to a specific manual next to a product feature you want to explain in more detail. It’s a good way to provide on-demand training without pressure.
For instance, if you use Scribe to create user manuals, linking to relevant Scribes or Scribe Pages right from your product interface will help you speed up user onboarding and improve customer experience.
Table of contents
Every user manual needs a sticky table of contents. When being able to switch between different sections and topics in one click, users will find solutions to their problems fast.
Provide a glossary for all terms and acronyms in the product interface in your user manual. Use plain language in your content to make it easy to read, reference and digest.
When possible, present your manuals in a form of step-by-step instructions and include a maximum of three sentences per paragraph.
There’s no need to develop a fancy design for your user manual. A combination of plain text and simple visuals will do the job. And remember — the simpler the better.
Backed by visuals
While searching for inspiring user guide examples, we discovered that a lot of top-notch SaaS companies don’t include visuals in their end-user documentation.
Look at one of ActiveCampaign’s help articles. The company’s comprehensive knowledge base has perfect structure and contents, but it lacks visuals. It would be way easier to remember information and follow instructions if there was a screenshot or a GIF visualizing the product interface.
Use a similar layout across all your user manuals. It will create consistency and add clarity across your product documentation.
When a lot of people are involved in the creation of help content, there’s a high risk every stakeholder will bring their own vision, tone of voice and writing style. To avoid it, encourage your product team and everyone involved to follow a template when creating user guides.
You’ll find our version of a user manual template at the end of this article.
Answers users’ questions
The way you see your product differs dramatically from the way your customers see it. What you may find too obvious may be absolutely baffling to product users, and vice versa.
That’s why a perfect understanding of your audience’s expertise level, priorities and pain points must be a cornerstone of your end-user documentation. A good user manual is one that not only answers the most common customer questions but also foresees questions they don’t know how to formulate yet.
How to write a user manual that takes the burden off your customer support
While there are many things to think of, writing user manuals doesn’t have to be difficult. Here are the seven best practices you should follow to nail the process.
Understand end-user needs
There’s work to do before you get down to writing. First, you need to understand who you write for.
Hopefully, you already have an idea of your customer personas, but it’s time to dive even deeper. Look at your personas and try to answer the following questions:
- Do these people have different expertise levels?
- Do different personas have different pain points and goals?
- How could you group these people (by role, responsibility, expertise level, etc.)?
- What problems each audience group might have with the product?
- How can you help them resolve these problems?
If you already have product data to analyze, use it to discover where your users need assistance the most. For example, while watching session recordings, you may reveal your customers don’t understand how to follow certain workflows.
Make a list of topics
When you know what your users want to see in the manuals, make a list of all the topics that come to your mind. You don’t need to categorize them now as you’ll do it later. Just write down everything you want to cover in your documentation.
Prioritize user manual types
After analyzing your audience groups, you’ll have an idea of how many manual types you need to create. But you can’t work on all of them at once. You need to turn to customer data one more time to figure out who needs help right now and who can wait.
To prioritize tasks, answer this simple question: who is your most valuable customer? Once you find the answer, you’ll know what type of user manual you should write first.
Say, you sell CRM software with email marketing functionality. While marketers do fit your customer personas, large sales teams bring you more value. In this case, you’ll be more interested in covering sales automation workflows and other sales-specific features first thing.
Decide on the user manual format
GIFs, screenshots or videos? It’s good to focus on one type of visual content you’ll be including in all your user manuals.
Of course, you can create different types of content for your users, but it’s best to publish them in separate formats. For instance, GIFs and screenshots are the most common visual content formats used in end-user documentation while video tutorials fit well in certification programs and academies (e.g., ClickUp University).
Create an outline
We’re almost there. You just need to map out your future content before you fill your user manuals with text.
Start by creating top-level categories for your user manual. After you’ve analyzed your user personas, you must already have an idea of how you want to segment the documentation. Often, companies split their user manuals by their customers’ job roles and expertise levels. Alternatively, you may group your help content by product feature or use case.
When you’ve outlined the categories, look at the topics you came up with earlier and start grouping them based on the common features.
Next, break down each topic into sections to briefly define what every manual will cover and avoid overlaps.
Do the work
Finally, you can write your user manual. If you have a multi-functional product and several customer segments, the process will eat up a lot of time. Unless you optimize it.
Use automation tools like Scribe to create user manuals on autopilot and spend your time on more important tasks. Once you press the Record button, Scribe will follow your actions and auto-generate manuals for you.
You can easily share your Scribes or embed them in any knowledge base. Don’t have a knowledge base? Great! You can add Scribes to Scribe Pages, create folders, configure access rights and manage your manuals from a shared dashboard right inside the Scribe interface.
If you use Scribe, you won’t need to do much writing. To provide context for your guides, you can include a glossary and a FAQ section right in your Scribes or Scribe Pages.
Analyze help content performance
Are your manuals useful? Is there anything you could add? Continue to monitor the usage of your help content to answer these questions and create user manuals your customers love.
Documentation software typically provides statistics on how users interact with content, but it’s not enough. Here’s what else you can do to improve your user manuals:
- Talk to your customer support team to learn whether user manuals have helped to reduce their workload.
- Embed a survey below each manual asking whether the content has answered the reader’s questions.
- Check the product analytics to discover the roadblocks that could easily be removed with help content.
Update your manuals when you spot content gaps and don’t forget to delete irrelevant content. When you publish new content, come up with a way to distinguish it from other user manuals (what about an emoji?) to attract users’ attention to it.
Free user manual template
Grab this simple user guide template and start creating stunning instructions for your users.
Create user manuals on autopilot
If you want to create an excellent customer experience, you need to add the creation and management of user manuals to your to-do list. But you don’t have to spend too much time on it. Develop a consistent process you’ll follow from ideation to user feedback collection, and you’ll maintain up-to-date end-user documentation with no effort.
Add a process documentation tool like Scribe to your toolkit, and you won’t spend a minute manually writing user manuals.