User manuals are created with the purpose of delivering valuable information that helps users use a certain product. In most cases, they revolve around products, but there are also how-to manuals that can instruct people to use something. There is a fine line between these two and the differences usually based on the subject they are trying to explain; everything else is basically the same.
Business organizations that use how-to manuals can benefit a lot from them. The first benefit of well-written how-to manuals is the fact that the business will lower their RMA rates (return merchandise authorization), meaning that fewer people will return the products because they accidentally damaged them when they tried to follow a bad manual. Furthermore, your customers will be more satisfied with your services when they get a good how-to manual with their products.
Some other benefits include reducing the chances of facing legal consequences due to misuse of your products, thus saving time for both your employees and your customers. This is why it is important to learn valuable techniques and rules for writing good manuals, as they are very cost-effective for your business.
Know your target audience
Before writing anything down, you will first have to analyze your target audience. Understanding the needs, feelings, interests of your target audience and what drives them can do half the work for you. When you have such valuable information, you can understand what kind of information you need to include in your manual and this will speed up the process. For example, if your audience consists primarily out of computer technicians, it is best to use a plain, techy language that they will understand easily.
Outline the objective of your manual
If you determine the main goal of your manual early on, you will be able to determine which information is valuable for its purpose and which isn’t. Create an outline of your manual and consider the information flow and where you need to place different kinds of information. These valuable checkpoints will reduce the chances of readers feeling overwhelmed, and it will also give you a limit as to how much information you can put in.
Use manual creation software
There are a lot of software systems that simply cannot have a manual created with screen capture tools of MS Word. They look ugly, annoying and chaotic. With these manuals, users can’t learn anything. They end up feeling so overwhelmed that they turn them off immediately. With manual creation software, you can create interactive manuals and organize the material in a logical way.
Use modular writing
Break down all of your information into smaller, readable and manageable pieces. Each of these smaller pieces should support and revolve around one individual idea or purpose. Such smaller portions of information are much easier for people reading the manuals to process, and you can more easily convey your thinking and the message you are trying to send on a particular subject. The modular style of writing also allows easier maintenance, and gives the option of reusing that same information through internal linking.
Be detailed and brief
All user manuals must be detailed and brief. There is no point in creating big texts. If you realize that you can give valuable answers in a couple of sentences, then this simplest way is the best solution. There is no need for complicating it. Include only as many details as needed to explain something clearly. Explain the details, but look to get the most out of each word. Creating an information overload is one of the biggest mistakes in manuals.
Have a conversational tone
Depending on the purpose of your manual, and the subject you are creating the manual for, you won’t always have to use technical lingo. If you use a technical tone with a target audience that doesn’t have the necessary knowledge to read it, they might feel overloaded and jumbled by all of the words that they don’t understand. Having a conversational tone when writing a manual can help the readers feel more faithful when it comes to finding the answers they actually need. Furthermore, if they are nervous about learning the answer, it can make them feel more comfortable and at ease.
Sometimes, it is best to explain something in short sentences and, instead of offering an additional explanation or more details in the next couple of sentences, the best way is to provide examples. This applies especially to technical writing. Even if your target audience has the knowledge to understand your writing, sometimes there will be people who simply forgot the words you included, so make sure that you offer examples or illustrations for the most complex terms or processes.
Include task-oriented content
Most products that companies sell have certain functions that, if properly used, allow users to perform specific actions or tasks. By adopting a task-oriented approach where you create content that is mostly based on explaining all of the tasks that can be performed with a certain product, you will make the manual much more effective. For example, if the product you are selling allows the users to create servers, there should be headings like “Building a server”, “Configuring servers”, “Deleting servers” etc.
Determine the best location for essential information
It’s in our human nature to first take a look at the center of a certain page or the screen and, after that, the upper left corner of the page. Why is this important? Because you should look to exploit this habit so that you get your message across. Always try to format your content in such a fashion that the most valuable information is in the middle of each subheading and that the main headings are aligned on the left. This is how people will pay attention, and the manuals will give the results you want.
Provide a detailed table of contents
A table of contents allows people to have a clear overview of the whole document. This is both helpful for users and the writers of the manual, as well. When you can easily check the whole structure of the manual, you won’t lose track of what’s next. The biggest benefit for users is that they can overview the information included. Sometimes, people don’t want to read the whole manual and they need to read a specific part. When they look at the table of contents, they can easily see whether it has what they are looking for.
Not using manuals is a big mistake for a business organization and an even bigger mistake is to have poorly written manuals, as you will waste money on creating negative results for your company. Make sure that you remember all of the things mentioned today when writing your manual, if you want to make sure that it’s a good one.
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