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3 Different Approaches to User Guides

by | Nov 2, 2017 | Articles | 0 comments

user guides main image

Until not so long ago, user guides were a fairly simple concept. You would receive them in the form of a bulky book, along with every product that may be a bit too complicated to use without additional explanations. Today, they come in many shapes and sizes – in regards to what our customers consider most convenient, the end-user documentation is now created in both traditional and paperless form.

With the constant evolvement of technology and customer behavior in mind, we’ve assembled a number of different techniques for creating concise and helpful user guides.

What Makes User Guides Effective?

writing user guides laptop

In a vast number of cases, end-user documentation is written for a product. These guides are a necessary addition to every package that includes a product that’s complicated to use, be that a tangible good or a software system.

They are not to be confused for technical documentation, though, which serves an entirely different purpose. Both can be written for the same product, but while technical documentation is meant to teach a reader everything there is to know about it (its components and construction, for instance), user manuals are created to tell customers nothing more than what they need for proper use.

This difference is crucial, since it influences the style in which two types of documentation should be written. Technical documentation is mostly reserved for engineers, developers, and testers; traditionally, it’s information-dense and uses highly technical terms and industry-specific jargon. The end goal of end-user documentation is to make complicated, multi-stepped processes simpler.

Because of that, ease of use is a central point of both user guides and the products they are created for. Regardless of the approach, there’s a number of general rules you need to follow.

  1. An Average User Rule

In order to make a user guide that’s truly helpful, you should never assume how much a user already knows about a subject. Describe the process to the tiniest detail instead, as if you are explaining to your elderly neighbor how to use a smartphone. Though your product’s target audience might be tech savvy, there’s a great chance that your guide will end up in the hands of somebody who isn’t. Since you’re creating it for the user, it might help you think like one.

  1. Concision

Even when you suppose that a user isn’t familiar with neither the product nor the procedure, it’s important to stay as succinct as you can. Basically, this means that a user guide shouldn’t include anything but useful information. As a writer who is well-familiar with the subject in case, you might be tempted to explain the intricacies behind the product. Resist that temptation and stick with only what a user needs to know.

  1. Perspicuity

When it comes to the actual style of the end-user document, the only rule you need to remember is perspicuity. Since its main purpose is to simplify a complicated procedure, a guide should be very easy to understand. Steer clear of technical terms and jargon, or translate them to a plain language in case you absolutely have to include them.

  1. Scannability

For both technically-savvy users and those who are not, a good guide should be seamless to scan. We’ll talk more about formatting in the next section, but what applies to all types of end-user documents is that the material needs to be presented in a way that allows recipients to find exactly what they need at only a few glances.

Different Types of User Guides and Approaches You Can Use

user guides tablet

Once the digital age has started to change the customer’s behavior, producers were faced with a simple choice: either improve with consumers, or fail. And, since modern customer behavior cannot be separated from the online environment, end-user documentation is now available in different forms.

  1. Written Manuals

The first approach to creating user guides is technical writing. The result is a purely textual manual – though usually combined with graphical demonstrations, this approach heavily relies on blocks of text. When well-written, such user guides are in no way inferior to other types.

As different people prefer different learning styles, the factor that makes one approach better than the other is highly subjective!

However, textual guides heavily rely on effective formatting. Their writers have to meet the same requirements as all other creators of user guides – an average user rule, concision, perspicuity and scannability – but they need to be especially careful with how they structure their material. Here are some general guidelines.

  • Whether you’re printing a book or writing a digital manual, the information should be organized in a logical way, so that the user can easily follow, navigate through, and know where to find what they need.
  • For that reason, blocks of text should be broken down into chunks, and divided into step-by-step sequences, chapters, and titled sections, while individual sections are made scannable with tabs, bullets, and numbered lists.
  • The use of colour and font (shading and emboldening) is important for highlighting important information.
  • Textual guides should also include a table of contents, a keyword index, and a glossary of technical terms.
  1. Graphical Manuals

Since blocks of text can be harder to consume, most user guides are a combination of two approaches – writing and graphical demonstration. Numerous studies agree that visual learning helps us to better retrieve and remember information, which is why abstract and complicated processes should always be demonstrated.

Even though technical writers have always used infographics, diagrams, and tables to explain procedures that are difficult to understand, a great number of today’s user guides is completely graphical. When we’re making an online purchase or installing a piece of software, for instance, screenshots can help us way more than the descriptive language.

As such, this approach has some obvious advantages over the first one.

  • Visual information is easier and quicker to process.
  • Images are succinct enough to depict challenging procedures in only a few steps.
  1. Video Guides

The third approach has also been around for a long time, but it wasn’t until lately that it became so widely used. Instead of physical or digital paper, this type of end-user documentation leverages moving pictures. How-to videos are all over the net, which is why the term online user guide is mostly reserved for them.

This approach allows for some processes to be explained without any words – for instance, a curling iron video guide can include nothing but footage of a person using a product. Still, the more complicated a procedure is, the thinner is the chance for creating a helpful video guide without a well-written text or use of graphics. If you decide to go with this approach, be sure to include subtitles in a different languages.

How to Choose the Best Approach

questions about user guides

However useful, each approach has its own merits and limitations. Similarly to graphical guides, videos consume less of a user’ time while providing the same amount of information. In comparison to textual guides, both of these approaches are simply more convenient.

As for their effectiveness – well, that depends on how a person processes information. Since you can’t make a different user guide for different types of learners, a combination of three approaches seems to be the best solution. Simply take the best of each world – a brief text, a graphical illustration and a video form – and blend them together.

Again, a good user guide is the one that addresses an average user, stays succinct and to-the-point, makes complicated processes easy to understand, and allows seamless navigation. Whether you’re writing your user guide, replacing text for graphical explanation, recording instructions on film, or using elements of all three, these four rules are crucial for a great result.

Author bio:- Robin is a Technical Support Executive. He is an expert in knowledge management and various Knowledge base tools. Currently, he is a resident knowledge management expert at ProProfs. In his free time, Robin enjoys reading and traveling.

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