Documentation

What is a Quick Reference Guide?

Quick reference guides or cheat sheets are brief summaries of comprehensive training materials that allow customers and employees to learn key concepts with ease.

Introduction

Your onboarding users at a massively rapid rate. It’s a great problem to have, but invariably some are having teething problems. You provide a comprehensive run-through of how your processes work... but they’re still struggling. It’s exasperating! 

Enter quick reference guides — a simple and easy way to train customers (and employees) on the ins and outs of any tool fast. These guides are one- to two-page documents that quickly summarize how to use a product. 

The cherry on top? They’re easy to craft and can simplify your training procedure to amplify operational efficiency. 

If you’re unsure how to create a quick reference guide, fret not — we’ll break it down for you in this article. 

Best practices for creating a quick reference guide

A comprehensive product manual generally stretches up to 200 pages. Imagine scouring through each page to find the information you need. Sounds like an exercise in futility, right? 

But, with a quick reference guide, you’ll have all the information you need in a condensed format that’s easy to read. But before you whip one up, take note of these four best practices to guide you along the way. 

1. Keep it short and simple

All the information you jot down in your guide should be readable and readily accessible. Limit the length of your sentences and use abbreviations wherever possible. For example, instead of saying “unique visitor,”  use the term “UV.” 

List down these abbreviations and their meanings in a separate section at the end of your guide so readers can cross-check if they have doubts. Don’t forget to write in an active voice. This will section your content into actionable steps that are easy to follow. 

2. Highlight important points with a different color

Draw attention to the key points in your document by color-coding each section and highlighting the main takeaways in each. Make sure you can read the highlighted words on their own. Say you’re telling readers how to create a text box on Google Sheets:

See how the highlighted sections can read as individual sentences? Follow a similar format. If you’ve got another section in your guide telling readers how to add tables in Google Sheets, highlight the key points in that section with another color. This gives a quick snapshot of how to use the tool end-to-end. 

Scribe top tip: You can also use Scribe to convert procedures into easy-to-follow step-by-step guides to allow your team members to implement any process seamlessly and independently. 

3. Include information on a need-to-know basis

Cut. The. Fluff. 

This should be your mantra when zeroing in on what to include in your quick reference guide. Extract all the essential details from your product manual and plug them into a working document. 

Then, start chopping off unnecessary words, leaving you with only brief points. Convert these into simple steps, and voila — you’ve successfully retained all the data needed for your guide. 

4. Pay attention to the layout

Your quick reference guide layout plays a huge role in its effectiveness. To design it right, you’ll need to create visual points of interest that guide the reader through your training material.

Each layout should draw inspiration from the text and visuals you want to include — some guides will require a four-column layout (if they’re text-heavy), while a two-column layout works just fine for others. 

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Mostly, it’s easier to design the layout first and carve your text to fit. If this approach doesn’t work, use your text as a starting point and brainstorm layouts accordingly.

3 steps for creating your own quick reference guide

User friction is the enemy, and we’re prepared to smite it down. By creating accessible documentation, you’re giving customers the chance to understand (and even love!) your product. It’s also a way to cut through the unnecessary details and showcase only what matters: what your tool is and how to use it. 

But quick reference guides don’t have to be mere customer-facing tools. Eighty-six percent of millennials say they are more likely to stay in an organization if they receive enough training and development opportunities. Upskilling is key. 

Quick reference guides can jumpstart this shift in mindset as easy-to-consume training material that improves information retention, helping employees learn quicker and more effectively. 

Follow these three steps to begin creating your own.   

1. Understand your audience

While creating a quick start guide, your primary goal is to simplify the material from product manuals, so customers or employees can easily understand and apply it. 

It’s important to note that you won’t speak to customers the same way you speak to employees, and it’s very likely that your readers come from a diverse array of ages, experience levels, learning styles and educational backgrounds. 

To ensure your guide caters to their varied needs, conduct a round of audience analysis to understand their learning objectives and preferences. From basic secondary research to user interviews and surveys — there are various ways to inform your analysis.

Irrespective of which method you choose, keep an eye out for the following factors:

Demographic information

Scope out how many users you expect to send your quick reference guides to. You’ll also need to find information on their educational background, experience level and age. 

Tools available

Are your readers well-equipped with the tools they need to learn? Check whether they can access stable internet, computers and editing software that lets them pen down extra information. 

Subject matter expertise

Figure out their knowledge level and how experienced they are in their current role. 

Attitude & learning style

How motivated are your readers to learn more about the subject? List down their key drivers and learning goals. To tailor your quick reference guide further, you’ll also need to take stock of their learning styles — whether visual, kinesthetic, auditory or textual.

Prior training

If your employees have prior training on certain tools, it’s important to consider this while creating your quick start guide. 

Communication channels

Think about how you’ll distribute your guides. Is there a centralized email address or distribution list you can use? Focus your attention on the method that draws the most attention from them. 

By conducting an in-depth analysis of your readers, you’ll have all the information you need to write for them instead of to them.

2. Collect the information

Now that you know what your readers expect from a quick start guide, it’s time to gather all the required information to start creating it. If your focus is on one product, source a couple of manuals that decode it. This will form the foundation of your guide. 

Skim through the manual and pick out the most important points for your guide. Paste them into a single document and analyze the gist of each. You’ll find a few points with recurring themes. Club them together and create categories to streamline the information. 

3. Add visual elements

Visual aids can enhance learning by a whopping 400 percent. Imagine a guide with huge blocks of text and a ton of technical jargon. Sounds off-putting, right? 

By packing your guides with various graphs, icons, charts, tables and pictures, you can improve information retention and make your guide seem less daunting for readers.

Scribe top tip: Assign an icon to each category you created in the previous step and add some eye-catching colors to improve the readability of your document. 

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Apart from static visuals, you can spice up your guide with GIFs of your product in action. This is where tools like Scribe come in handy. All you need to do is record yourself working with the product of your choice, and Scribe will automatically turn it into a step-by-step visual guide that you can in a matter of seconds.

Create your first quick reference guide today!

With a quick reference guide, you’ll be able to provide more learning and development opportunities for users at low cost and effort. These guides pave the way for increased customer usage and retention, plus a more efficient workforce. Quick guides help readers understand your product and locate important information they need to complete core tasks. 

Although the prospect of creating a quick reference guide from scratch may sound intimidating, it’s quite simple to do with the tips we’ve mentioned in this article. 

And if you want some help creating easy-to-follow guides for your products, sign up for Scribe (for free!).