Documentation

What is a How-to Guide & Why Should You Write Them?

A how-to guide can help you build teams, strengthen employees and save hours answering “how do I…?” It's also an amazing marketing tool. So what are you waiting for?

Introduction

You know when you just need to know how to do something?

That’s where a how-to guide comes in.

The instructional piece of writing known as a "how-to guide" is a document that advises the reader on how to carry out an activity with step-by-step guidelines.

 It’s an efficient method of communicating information about a current process.

A how-to guide can help you build teams, strengthen employees and save hours answering “how do I…?” Not to mention it can strengthen your brand by answer questions that potential leads are searching for.

How-to guides are more than bulk text. You'll often find some combination of text, graphics and video to keep readers engaged. 

Remember, the whole point is to help your reader learn how to accomplish a specific goal.

In this article, we’ll go over:

  • A little more about what a how-to guide is.
  • Why it’s so important.
  • Common challenges you might face in making one.  
  • Best practices in writing a guide (with some examples to reference)! 

What is a how-to guide?

A how-to guide is an instructional document that details a process from beginning to end through a string of step-by-step instructions. You’ll usually find this type of guide online.

Many people who read how-to guides want to understand or complete a task. 

Regardless of your expertise or target audience, most how-to guides follow a straightforward structure (like the ones we'll see below).

A how-to guide is, at its heart, a tutorial on accomplishing something. Some of the topics you might cover are how to become a social media maven, how to replace a tire and so on.

In order to keep visitors coming back, you must make it as simple as possible for them to follow up with your tutorials.

When done correctly, how-to guides are an extremely useful resource for teams and customers. 

Why are how-to guides important?

How-to guides help distribute knowledge about both basic and complex activities. 

When combined, they can support complicated operations and help readers develop even highly technical skills.

How many people search "How to [fill in the blank]" on Google daily?

One of the most common reasons people use the internet is to get instructions on performing a task.

Develop your own how-to guides to showcase your authority on any subject, and provide users with useful and relevant information. 

Those readers could likely become customers and brand champions in the future, spreading the word about your products and services.

And for the employees and customers you already have, a robust knowledge base with easy-to-use how-to guides will boost satisfaction and productivity. 

In short, how-to manuals are a worthwhile investment.

Common how-to guide challenges and mistakes

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.

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:

  • Screenshots. 
  • Tables.
  • Infographics.
  • Images.
  • Videos. 
  • Bullet points.

… and any other helpful visuals to complement your instructions

Best practices for writing how-to guides

Here are some best practices for writing effective how-to guides that people will want to read. 

  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • Include examples and visual representations. Visual aids or related examples can help readers understand the text better. 
  • Use active verbs. Instead of saying, "Your RFP should begin with a brief history of your firm," instead, "Write a company background."
  • Break up text. Use numbered lists, headings and bullet points to make it easier for readers to skim.
  • Use screenshots. This will help readers who can't load the image on their screen or who don't get what you're referencing. 
  • Link to other relevant content. Now your readers can answer more questions, or continue working on a more complex project. 
  • Illustrate your point. Use examples as often as possible to give your reader more context. 
  • 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

1. The recipe how-to guide

Readers of Good to Know's Victoria sponge recipe may quickly learn:

  1. How long the recipe will take
  2. What ingredients they'll need
  3. The skill level necessary to prepare the dish 
  4. 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.

2. 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 quickly download and apply Atlassian's strategy with their teams.

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. 

3. The B2C how-to guide

Yoast is not only going to work with you in optimizing the website — it’ll also give you comprehensive SEO solution

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.

4. 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 users to the documentation. 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 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.

5. 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. 

Do you have a different writing style for tutorials and how-to guides?

The terms "tutorials" and "guides" often refer to information that shows how to do a job. Even if some contend that one is more evocative than the other, you'll discover that it differs from one brand to the next.

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.

Make how-to guides — fast!

We know why how-to guides matter. But the reality is they can be cumbersome and tough to make. It takes a lot of time and effort to document steps and manually record screenshots. 

What if we told you there was a way to generate how-to guides in seconds?

Scribe is a step-by-step process generator that turns any workflow into a how-to, complete with text and screenshots. Simply turn on the extension or desktop app. Scribe will follow along as you work then create beautiful visual documentation. 

Cut your documentation time with Scribe. Here it is in action!