We might know the what and the why, but what about when you just need to know how to do something?
A how-to guide is a simple, clear document that walks readers through the steps or phases of any action. How-to guides can be about anything, from informal processes to step-by-step procedures in business.
In short, how-tos answer those "how do I...?" questions we ask or field throughout the day. You can use them to build teams, increase customer satisfaction and strengthen your brand by answering the questions your prospects are most likely to ask.
What is a how-to guide?
A how-to guide (also known as a "how-to" or "step-by-step guide") outlines a process from beginning to end through step-by-step instructions. This could be in the form of a blog, business playbook or standard operating procedure.
Regardless of its format, the purpose of a how-to guide is to help someone understand how to complete a task. This can be in any industry or level for complexity. For example, you might look up a how-to guide on:
- How to use a tool or software.
- How to create something new.
- How to troubleshoot issues.
- How to replace a tire.
... you get the idea.
While there are different types of how-to guides (such as work instructions or video tutorials), most will include a(n):
- Brief overview of the process.
- List of required resources.
- Breakdown of each step.
- A visual cue to illustrate the step — like an annotated screenshot or illustration.
Most importantly, a how-to guide must be clear and specific to its audience. For example, a how-to targeting experts will be very different than a basic guide.
You'll know your how-to guide was successful if your reader can accomplish the goal and keeps coming back to your resources.
Are how-to guides different than tutorials?
The terms "tutorials," "guides," and "visual work instructions" often refer to information that shows how to do something.
These terms might differ from one brand to the next, with slightly different meanings. The distinction between a user handbook and a how-to guide is maybe the most glaring.
Internally, a how-to guide helps employees and customers accomplish standard tasks. In marketing, it can create leads at the top of the sales funnel.
A user manual supports customers who need the ins and outs of a good or service. Both are important, but they serve wildly different functions.
Why are how-to guides important?
How-to guides help distribute knowledge about both basic and complex topics — for some major benefits. Here are the top reasons to create and use how-to guides.
1. Answer common questions fast
How many people search "How to [fill in the blank]" on Google daily?
One of the most common reasons people use the internet (and more recently, AI tools like ChatGPT extensions) is to get instructions on performing a task.
How-to guides are an easy way to quickly break down process steps and resolve problems.
2. Onboard and train new employees
By implementing guides into your onboarding flow, you're able to familiarize them with your tools and processes — without devoting hours to hands-on training.
A knowledge base with easy-to-use how-tos will boost satisfaction and productivity. Combine your guides to make instruction manuals or use them as training job aids that all employees can access. Make sure you enable teams to easily access guides with a worthwhile platform and strong free VPN.
3. Increase customer satisfaction
Don't underestimate the power of customer support documentation. Sixty-nine percent prefer to handle problems on their own. Build a help center or FAQ page to help users:
- Start using your product.
- Navigate your features.
- Troubleshoot common problems.
- Answer the most popular questions.
This will help you reduce support tickets and turn your clients into expert product evangelists.
Survey your users or look at ticket data to pool common issues, then write a how-to guide to answer each question.
4. Build an audience
Whether you're capturing client demand or building a personal brand, how-to guides meet your audience where they are (on Google or social media), so you can:
- Solve their problems with useful and relevant information.
- Showcase your authority.
- Generate leads or product users.
- Expand your mailing list.
...and so much more.
How to write a how-to guide
There are a few ways you can start writing how-to guides now. We recommend using a process documentation tool so you can create, store and share your guides more easily.
For example, Scribe is an AI-powered software that generates how-to guides for you. Just turn on the extension and go through your process. Scribe will capture your screen to create your guide — complete with text, links and screenshots. Here's an example.
Whether you're using a tool or writing manually, here's a step-by-step guide on how to create effective how-tos.
1. Identify and research your audience
Before you start to write, you need to know who you're talking to.
For example, you'd write a very different how-to guide for a mechanic than for the ordinary car owner. If you're not writing a how-to guide for experts, you'll need to avoid jargon and be descriptive enough for them to understand.
Dig into your viewer data to understand who your audience is. You can research your audience further by:
- Checking out Reddit or Slack communities.
- Searching through your support tickets.
- Surveying your current users or followers.
- Reading the "People Also Ask..." sections on Google.
Let's break that down. Say you wanted to write: "How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy."
- Quora's "What is content marketing?" question is a good place to start researching. You can learn common questions, frustrations and knowledge gaps by simply reading the comments.
- Contact your research marketing team to identify prevalent problems or common themes in queries about "content marketing" in surveys or focus groups
- Even though most of your audience claims they prioritize content marketing, they may not know how to accomplish it on a budget.
- Qualitative research like this guarantees that your how-to guide tackles all critical issues on a specific subject.
2. Choose a format, tool or template
For example, Scribe is an AI-powered tool that documents your how-to processes for you. The extension captures your screen while you work, then creates a visual how-to guide, complete with annotated screenshots.
This way, you don't have to manually build your document, and can easily make edits as processes change.
Step-by-step guide templates are another helpful way to get started. Here's one you can use today.
Whether you're using a template or tool, most guides will follow a very simple format:
- Introduction and overview.
- Numbered process steps
- Process descriptions and visuals.
You can also include any additional resources needed, such as a glossary or links to your knowledge base.
3. Start writing your how-to guide
Now that you've chosen your format or tool, you can start building your guide. Use a tool like Scribe to create your how-to guide, or follow the steps below.
- Set your goals: Ask yourself, "Why do my readers need this?" and make sure you have the answer. Clearly articulate what problem you are solving and what outcome to expect.
- Be clear and specific. How you write and organize your guide will directly impact how easy it is to understand. If a procedure is complicated, consider making several how-tos and using a process documentation tool to combine your guides.
- Write straight to the user. Wherever feasible, begin each step with a verb. The active voice gets them in the right mindset and more directly dictates what to do.
- Add visuals: Many people will use your how-to guide as a set of instructions. If they want to take screenshots on a Macbook, they need to be able to see the desktop.
- Add captions: Screenshot editor tools can help you highlight, redact or annotate your images as needed.
- Separate your process steps: Add headlines and use bullet points to make your how-to guide easier to follow.
4. Review and publish your how-to guide
Once you've completed your first draft, you're ready to:
- Review your how-to guide Make sure your writing is error-free and straightforward. Try reading your steps backward or asking someone else to proofread. Ask a subject matter expert to review and approve if necessary.
- Put your how-to guide into practice. Before distributing your how-to guide, run through the steps as if it were your first time. Perhaps you overlooked an obvious step, or the steps aren't listed in the correct order. Have someone else go through the tutorial and give input.
- Publish your how-to guide manual. Publish your guide after you’re satisfied with the final product. Put it up in your blog, add to your knowledge base or share it directly with users.
5. Make your how-to guide accessible
When you're ready to publish your guide, you'll have to choose who has access. "Gating" access can secure privileged information and help with lead generation.
Think about your audience. Is this strictly an internal document, or can it help develop your email marketing list?
If you decide to restrict access to your guide, make sure that the process is simple. Don’t ask for more information than you need. Avoid asking for personal information (like a phone number) if your goal is to build an email list.
6. Incorporate feedback
How-to guides are living documents. Your processes and tools will inevitably change. Make sure to incorporate a feedback loop so that you can always update your content.
Software can help with this. For example, Scribe has a built-in feedback feature that lets users alert you when a process step is out of date.
8 Tips for creating a how-to guide
Here are some best practices for writing effective how-to guides that people will want to read.
1. Keep it simple
How-to guides are frequently organized in a logical sequence of stages. In many cases, there’s a single job assigned to each phase. Stay as close to the logical sequence as possible. If the task is complicated, consider breaking it up into several guides that you can later combine.
2. Stay brief
To do the process correctly, the reader has to understand each stage. When writing a how-to guide, keep instructions short and to the point so the reader can focus on the task.
3. Include examples and visual representations
Visual aids or related examples can help readers understand the text better.
4. Use active verbs
Instead of saying, "Your RFP should begin with a brief history of your firm," instead, "Write a company background."
5. Break up your text
Use numbered lists, headings and bullet points to make it easier for readers to skim.
6. Use screenshots or illustrations
This will help readers who can't load the image on their screen or who don't get what you're referencing with your guide.
7. Link to other relevant content
Now your readers can answer more questions, or continue working on a more complex project.
8. Write with empathy
This stuff can be hard! Acknowledge that mastering a new skill or getting better at an existing one might be frustrating.
How-to guide examples
Different types of how-to guides serve different needs. Here are six real-life examples you can learn from today.
1. The standard how-to guide
Scribe helps internal and client-facing teams create how-to guides for work processes, SOPs and more. This simple process document outlines:
- The purpose of the guide.
- Who created the guide (and how long it took them to make).
- The amount of process steps.
- User reactions.
- A step-by-step guide with annotated screenshots.
This tool is perfect for answering quick questions, building a company or client-facing knowledge base or creating standardized procedures.
Just go through your process and let Scribe do the rest. Each guide is easy to customize, share, embed or export into HTML, PDF or markdown.
2. The recipe how-to guide
Readers of Good to Know's Victoria sponge recipe may quickly learn:
- How long the recipe will take.
- What ingredients they'll need.
- The skill level necessary to prepare the dish.
- How to make it successfully.
In this example, we have many different options for different learning levels.
If readers know what they need to make french toast, they might click on "Instructions" to start immediately.
The "Watch How-To Video" option is available if a reader wants to watch rather than read. Visitors that consume content in several different ways would like this.
Consider how to best structure your how-to guide so that readers can jump right to what they need while you're structuring your own. Be sure to consider the preferred media of your intended audience as well.
3. The B2B how-to guide
The article "How to Write the Perfect 90-Day Plan" from Atlassian has essential background information on the 90-day plan.
It also answers FAQs, like: "What is a 90-Day Plan?" and "What should be included in a 90-day plan?"
This post is written with compassion and demonstrates research.
A PDF of the 90-day plan is included in the book, allowing customers to download and apply Atlassian's strategy with their teams quickly.
Identify what digital resources, such as ebooks, PDFs, and charts you can make available to readers.
If possible? Make it even less work. Step-by-step guide templates let users share and repeat a process easily.
4. The B2C how-to guide
Yoast gives clear documentation, and if you have any questions, you can easily find and connect with the support staff.
In addition to that, it offers accurate pagination, in addition to all of the categories that are mentioned to the left. Using the Search tool that is located towards the top of the page, one may quickly find the category they are looking for. It will also reveal the information on the most recent time the document was revised.
To maintain a reader's interest, write in clear language that uses action verbs. When outlining the actions to take, it is preferable to begin with a verb rather than a noun when possible.
5. The product-related how-to guide
For internet enterprises, Stripe provides online payment processing. Large corporations and small start-ups rely on Stripe for online payments, payouts and company management.
Stripe's documentation is among the finest in the industry. Its user interface is simple and straightforward, with a large search bar welcoming you to the user guide. It provides easy-to-follow guidelines for anyone wishing to get started with Stripe.
With Stripe, you'll be able to learn more about how to run a business and how to handle your finances. Customers have an easy time reading and understanding the content.
To learn more about Stripe's products, simply scroll down the page and click on the icon that best represents the product.
It's easy to get lost in Stripe's product documentation, but the site does an excellent job of concealing superfluous features. A left-hand navigation menu shows all the pages in a category when you travel to the documentation's page level.
When you reach the end of the article, you can rate the page's usefulness and find a contact link for the customer service department.
Customers rave about Stripe's documentation since it is so thorough and easy to understand.
6. The lifestyle how-to guide
This post by Eufic, titled "10 Healthy Lifestyle Tips for Adults," gives information that is both succinct and helpful regarding how to live a healthy life.
The reader gets a table of contents and is free to start reading at any place in the text that strikes their fancy.
The fact that the book is structured in the form of numbered lists makes it easier to organize the content in an organized fashion. It’s way easier for the readers to scan the content and find what they need.
Common how-to guide challenges
When creating how-to guides, here are some things to look out for.
1. Not publishing your guide
A how-to guide is useless if no one has access to it. Make sure you socialize with your team, customers and audience.
Put it in a knowledge base for easy internal access. And if it’s a blog, make sure it goes live!
You can even monetize your blog even if you aren't writing product reviews or best-of lists.
Include affiliate links in your how-to guide if you do business with any of the companies whose products you promote and for which you receive compensation.
2. Not writing for the audience
Whether internal or external, your reader is trying to figure something out. Give them the information they need — and cut the fluff.
If you’re writing how-to articles, work within the context of your product or service. This will get visitors to your site.
Regardless of the context, make sure you’re answering questions that people are asking. It’s a waste of time and effort to create a guide that no one is interested in searching for.
Internally, you can survey employees and customers to see what questions they have. Externally, using data mining tools such as a Google Trends API or SEO tools will help you figure out what people are searching for.
If you’re publishing in your blog, put together a keyword research method to see what resonates with readers.
3. Not knowing how to do the task
Although it may appear obvious, it is important to point this out. If you can’t describe how to do something, leave it to the experts.
Don’t put yourself in that position. Your audience will be aware, and the quality of the information will suffer.
4. Relying on paid ads as your primary ranking factor
If you’re publishing in a blog, paid advertisements don't last forever. You will, at some point, be completely out of money. If this occurs, you’ll no longer be ranked first on the search engine results page (SERP).
After you've produced an evergreen piece of content, getting organic traffic from SEO will continue to grow over time, with very little more work required on your side.
5. Insufficient use of visuals
Reading gets tedious when you’re forced to confront a massive wall of text.
Break up your content with:
- Bullet points.
… and any other helpful visuals to complement your instructions.
In conclusion: It's time to create how-to guides
How-to guides are a surefire way to offer solutions, showcase your authority and see real (often monetary) results.
Now that you know how to create a how-to guide, it's time to get started. Identify your audience, choose your tool and start building!