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What is a User Manual? Build a Better User Experience

User guides don’t have to be dull. Learn how to create an engaging user manual.

Introduction

Your user manual is your first line of support when customers run into a challenge or question about your product. 

Your user manual can build stronger customer relationships, increase team productivity, and improve your bottom line if created correctly. But more often than not, user manuals are overly complex, text-heavy and challenging to navigate — making customers even more frustrated with product complications before they finally reach out to your support team. 

User manuals need the right time and attention to really deliver worthwhile results. Keep reading to learn how to create a user manual that is engaging, educational and easy to use. 

What is a user manual?

A user manual provides instructions on how to use a product, feature or service. User manuals (sometimes called user guides or instruction manuals) walk users through the various parts of a product, helps them set up the product and can give troubleshooting instructions for common issues. 

It’s important to note that a user manual is not the same as an onboarding manual. While the onboarding manual lists steps, actions or tasks a new user must complete to get the most value out of the product, a user manual is used as a resource for providing extra technical support or instruction when the user runs into a problem. 

Benefits of a user manual

A well-written manual ensures your users get the most out of your product. Here are the biggest benefits of user manuals. 

1. Improve user experience, satisfaction and safety

No matter how intuitive your product is, it’s unlikely that your users are going to figure out how it works from their first interaction. Reaching out for direct support may be an option, but having to connect with an agent each time they have a question can quickly become a nuisance. 

While some trial and error or exploration can close the gap between what they know and what they don’t, lack of direction or available resources can prevent users from learning the most efficient way of doing things. Users become frustrated — and in the worst-case scenarios, it can result in injury. 

A user manual provides a self-service option that eliminates the need to guess or cut corners. When everything works as it should, users have a more positive experience, satisfaction with your product rises, and risk of injury reduces. 

2. Strengthen your brand image 

User manuals tell your audience you care about their experience. A user manual that is informative, easy to understand, and (most of all) useful can help you build a stronger relationship with your customers and strengthen your brand image. 

User manuals can improve customer satisfaction and happiness, increasing the likelihood that your users will recommend your product to their friends and colleagues. They are also more likely to leave positive reviews or share their experience with your brand online. 

3. Reduce costs and improve your bottom line

User manuals provide self-service instructions that enable your customers to solve problems or troubleshoot issues without the help of your support team. With fewer support requests, you can have a smaller, more specialized team of agents and cut costs. 

Improving user experience with a user manual can also reduce customer churn and improve customer lifetime value. When customers stick around longer, you can scale your business more efficiently and see greater returns. 

Challenges of creating a user manual

Before you begin creating your user manual, here are some of the biggest challenges to be aware of. 

1. Identifying & meeting user needs and concerns 

The primary goal of your user manual is to address your users’ needs and concerns — otherwise, your manual is useless. Understanding what issues or challenges your users are facing is the first step in creating a user manual. 

You can use support analytics or feedback to identify common issues your users are experiencing. What questions are they frequently asking? What parts of your platform require the most support? Start by addressing those needs first.

2. Making instructions clear & concise 

User guides are often technical and require step-by-step instructions that are sometimes difficult to explain — especially when you’re not able to give hands-on support to your users. But complicated or unclear instructions can lead to new user frustrations. 

Instructions should be clear and concise. When a step is complex, look for alternatives to text-based instructions, such as videos or images. A tool like Scribe can help you build detailed user guides with images and video instructions.

3. Ensuring instructions are accurate & up-to-date

Instructions also need to be up to date and reflect any new platform changes or additions, meaning you need to update your user guide every time your product updates. This can quickly become a time-suck for your team if you’re frequently making changes. 

The best way to keep your user guide updated is to use a digital platform to manage your support content. A content management system will make it easier to make changes to your content and ensure your users are working from the most accurate information. 

4. Creating engaging content

Let’s be honest – user manuals aren’t the most exciting pieces of content. Your users aren’t likely to sit down and read your user manual cover to cover. But you still want to ensure the content you’re creating is engaging enough to walk users through each process. 

Images, videos, and other forms of media are great ways to make your user manual content more engaging and help you get the point across more efficiently. 

How to write a user manual 

Here are six steps to get started writing your user manual. 

1. Know your audience & their purpose 

First, get to know who your audience is and what they are using your user manual for. Get clear about who your user is, what problems they face, and how they’d most like to engage with your support content. 

This is a great time to review your support data and analytics. Identify the times in your users' lifecycle when they’re most likely to reach out for help, what questions they ask and what solutions they need. Note their comfort level with digital products and self-service help options, or if they’re more old school and prefer handling situations over the phone. 

The choices you ultimately make when creating your user guide should align with your audience's expectations. Prioritize their needs — not just what is trending or popular. 

2. Choose your user manual form

Your user manual should be presented in a way that aligns with your users’ needs and preferences. Based on what you learned about them in the first step, decide what form you want your user manual to take. 

A digital user manual is the easiest to update and distribute, but physical copies can also be beneficial for equipment or physical products. In some cases, a hybrid approach with both physical and digital manuals can ensure all your bases are covered. 

Think about the tools or software you’re going to use to create, house and distribute your user guide. A tool that handles all three can make managing your user guide content easier. 

3. Create an outline

Once you have your tools set up an a vision for your user guide, start creating your outline. Identify the questions you’re going to answer and the solutions you’re going to provide. At this stage, don’t worry too much about the details. 

Make a list of the most important information you need to share in your user guide and create an organization structure for your content. For example, you may want to batch content based on phases of the user lifecycle or by product features. Regardless of the structure you choose, make sure it is easy to follow for your audience. 

4. Build your instruction content

With the right planning and tools, building your content is easy. To get instructions as accurate as possible the first time around, bring subject matter experts into the creation process. 

Making creation a team effort brings all your team’s knowledge together to develop the best possible content. Go straight to the team members who know your platform best to get accurate instructions and information to build out your user guide. 

Scribe can make this process as easy as possible by allowing team members to record steps and tasks as they normally would. They don’t need to schedule extra time in their day to attend meetings or write down steps, so they’ll be more likely to contribute. 

5. Test your user manual

When you user manual is complete, test your instructions for accuracy and clarity. Work with someone unfamiliar with your product (such as a focus group or an intern) and ask them to follow your instructions to see if they can follow the process and achieve the expected outcome. 

If necessary, make updates and revisions. 

6. Make regular updates 

Your user guide is going to change frequently. Stay on top of changes by scheduling regular updates and modifications. 

Start by working user guide updates into your product update rollout plan. Any time you have a major update to your product planned, include steps to updating and revising your user guide. 

You should also regularly add new content based on questions your support team is getting. If you’re seeing a new increase in certain support tickets or questions, you might want to consider including new content in your user guide to address those issues. 

Keep an eye out for unused content as well. If specific pages in your user guide aren’t getting a lot of attention, you may want to remove them from your manual. Keeping your manual concise and relevant can make it easier for your users to navigate. 

User manual best practices (with examples) 

Want to make your user manual even better? Here are our top best practices to follow. 

1. Keep language simple

When a user reaches for your user manual, they’re likely already feeling confused and frustrated. There’s no need to add to that confusion by using technical jargon an average user won’t understand. 

Instead, keep language simple. Imagine you’re explaining how to complete the task to a friend or colleague. Keep sentences short and to the point, and avoid unnecessary commentary. 

Slack, for example, gets straight to the point in its user guide. It’s clear what next steps the user should take and how they can get started. 

2. Use images & visuals wherever possible 

Why tell users how to complete a task when you can show them? Adding images and visuals to your user guide helps you break down complex instructions into easy to follow steps. 

Annotating screenshots or adding voiceovers to video walkthroughs can make your visuals even stronger. Rather than trying to explain where a user can find the button they need to click or the page they need to view, you can show them exactly what to look for. 

Scribe makes that easy to do with built-in screenshot editing and annotation tools. Here’s an example of a Scribe showing a user how to create a contact in Salesforce: 

3. Opt for simple steps

Your users don’t need detailed explanations breaking down the purpose of each step. They just need clear instructions that are easy to follow. 

Keep steps short and simple. Users shouldn’t be expected to complete multiple tasks within one step. If you want to add additional context or extra support, use call out boxes, links, or add helpful tips after the instructions. 

Here is an example from Canva. Each step clearly explains what the user needs to do and any extra information is saved for the end.   

4. Add a table of contents 

A table of contents helps your users quickly find what they need. Breaking down your user guide into topic sections makes it easy to navigate and can improve your user experience. 

Use the content structure you created when outlining your user guide to build your table of contents. Including a detailed table of contents is especially important if your users will be relying a physical copy of your guide. 

Here’s an example of a user guide with a table of contents from Airtable. Because this is a digital user guide, the table of contents presents as a clickable navigation list that is accessible and easy to navigate. 


5. Make it searchable 

While this best practice can only be used for digital versions of your user guide, adding a search option is a great way to further improve the user experience of your manual. A search function gives users an opportunity to quickly find exactly the page they need without having to dig. 

The strength of your search feature will likely depend on where you choose to house your user guide. Choosing a platform that lets you easily tag, categorize, or optimize your content for search can help ensure the right information gets to your users when they need it. 

Check out Notion’s search feature in their user guide. In addition to a table of contents and navigation, users can type in keywords or questions into the search bar to find articles specific to their issue. 

Create a better user manual with Scribe 

The key to a strong user manual is creating engaging support content. If your user manual isn’t accurate, informative and engaging, it’s likely to fall flat with your audience. 

Scribe can help you create better content to build a better user guide. Create detailed step-by-step instructions in just a few seconds, making it easy for any member of your team to share their expertise and get users the information they need quickly and efficiently. 

Want to see for yourself just how easy it is to create a user guide with Scribe? Get started with a free trial today.