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By Craig H
With a bit of planning, you can write user manuals that are highly effective. This article will walk you through the process of researching and writing your guide.
The secret to great manuals…
Research is the key to getting users to read your manual. Not only do you need to carefully research the product so the documentation is accurate, but you also need to research how consumers use the product.
What tasks are users trying to complete? Gather this information by interviewing both product users and the engineers who developed the product. By providing exactly the information consumers seek about the product, you can increase the chances that those users will return to the manual the next time they have questions.
Refer often to the product while you are writing. Compare each procedure you write against your product so you can be sure of the accuracy of your user manual.
Nailing down the structure (the easy way!)
Now you can begin structuring your research into an outline. Do not skip this step. Your outline will guide you through the writing process and make the work easier.
As you begin to flesh out the topics listed in your outline, you’ll likely run into structural and formatting issues. To keep things consistent and provide a professional look and feel, you should get a user manual template. A high quality template will likely save you much time and frustration as you write your guide, and you can re-use it for future guides.
Essential components and sections
Using your outline, start drafting procedures for the tasks users will perform with your product. Procedures are numbered steps that walk users through each task.
It is essential that your procedures follow the correct order, and that you include any necessary warnings for dangerous tasks. Always keep the safety of your users in mind.
Reference chapters, such as tables of troubleshooting information, or Frequently Asked Questions, might also be useful in your user manual. Consider carefully whether your guide will benefit from such information.
If you include a Frequently Asked Questions section, be sure to consider all common questions asked by consumers. Consult your product support team members for help; they talk with users every day. Thoroughness is the key to writing great FAQ’s.
Providing reference tools
Now that you have a draft of the manual, start working on tools to help your users find the information they need. If your word processor has a tool for automatically creating a Table of Contents, use it. This table may not be perfect, but you can use it as a starting point. Refine the listings in the table until it has enough information to get users to the appropriate sections of the guide, but don’t feel obligated to include minor details. Just add entries for major headings and subsections.
You can also create an index. Most index entries list nouns first, followed by verbs. For example, “Files: copying” is an appropriate entry. Use your word processor to automate the tracking of page numbers for your index.
Why document reviews matter
Now that you’ve written your guide, you need to get other product experts to look it over. They can help spot inaccuracies in the content and make suggestions for adding details that you might have missed. Your list of reviewers should include product managers, support representatives, and the engineers that developed the product. The more people you have looking at the guide, the better it will be. However, more reviewers can also result in missed deadlines, so be sure to let reviewers know if you are on a tight delivery schedule so they can return comments to you quickly.
Do you need a high-quality user guide template to guide you through the process? Click here!