Effective User Manuals

A user manual can reduce your maintenance costs and time on the phone–if it’s a good one. Peter Vogel explores how to create a user manual that will actually get read.

Without a user manual, your users have to call you to find out how your application works. Without a user manual, your users will probably end up making errors that you’ll have to clean up. Yet, while a user manual should make your clients’ lives easier, most manuals aren’t read. The reason is that most user manuals aren’t very good. Creating an effective manual isn’t hard to do, though, provided you follow some simple rules. I’ll begin by outlining the steps that you need to follow to create an effective user manual, and then drill down to the detail of how to lay out a page.

As I see it, if you’re not willing to commit to following a defined process in creating your user manual, you’re actually better off not creating a user manual at all. You can invest the time and money saved in other tasks. Before you consider dropping the manual, however, do bear one thing in mind: Your clients regard a user manual as a value-added item (even if it they never use it). When customers don’t receive a user manual, they feel short-changed. It also lowers the level of your professionalism and the quality of your work in their eyes. As a result, producing a user manual might be unavoidable. If you’re going to invest the time and money, you might as well do it right and get some return on your investment.

The process

Creating a user manual doesn’t consist solely of sitting down and starting to write. Just as with developing an application that actually meets your customers’ needs, there’s a process that you can use to create a user manual that works. The process defines a structure for early involvement by the end user. Since the final judge of the user manual is the end user, early involvement is essential for gaining user acceptance of the final product.

As with designing an application, the process for creating a user manual begins with a specification. The specification needs to answer these questions:

  • At whom is your manual aimed? Is your manual designed for new computer users, or does it target sophisticated developers?
  • What do you want your manual to accomplish? Is it to show how to use the basic functions of your application, or will it provide in-depth understanding of the hidden features of the program?
  • What is the manual’s range? Is your manual designed just to explain how to use the program, or will it discuss how your application fits into the whole business process?
  • Where does the manual fit? Is it designed as a standalone document, or is it a part of a package that includes quick reference cards and a training program?
  • What can you assume? Is the documentation aimed at an audience that is part of your organization and can be assumed to share its goals, mores, and a common set of reference points? Or is your documentation aimed at an external audience that will have very little in common with each other (and with you)?
  • What is the organizational support for the manual? How will the manual be updated? How will its effectiveness be tested? What review process is in place?

When your specification is complete and you know what your documentation has to accomplish, you can move on to the next steps in the process. After a specification is drawn up, there are four phases that the documentation will go through: initial design, prototyping, construction, and delivery.

In the initial design phase, you decide how your manual is going to be laid out. Using the specification as your guide, you’ll decide what the topic headings will be, what graphics are required, and what style, tone, and vocabulary are required. At this point you can start making time and cost estimates.

In the prototyping phase, you create mock-ups of the pages and sections of your manual. Once your mockups are created, you can let members of the manual’s target audiences perform a “walk through” and tell you if the manual’s organization matches their needs. Sample sections can be written out in detail and given to users as part of the application’s testing process. The key question is always, “Given the manual, can the user perform the required task?”, so walk-throughs consist of giving the user a task and seeing if he or she can find the relevant information in your manual.

The construction phase involves the hard work of grinding out the text. If the early work has been done well, the construction phase will produce a manual that meets your users’ needs. Delivery includes the printing and distribution of the manual (which might, for instance, be given out as part of a training class).

Manual organization

The key to success in the design-phase stage lies in having a task orientation. Users pick up a manual expecting it to tell them how to accomplish the task they’re performing right now. Your manual must meet that need.

A task-oriented approach, though, is not taken by the typical programmer developing a manual for a new application. The typical programmer will lay out the manual to match the organization of the program. Ideally, the structure of your application is hidden from your users, so a user manual organized around program structure will seem arbitrary to your users.

More enlightened programmers use a format similar to the reference manuals for the languages and tools with which they are familiar. However, the specification for a manual aimed at Access developers will be very different than one aimed at sales clerks, with resulting differences in the manual design. Even a design that reflects the menu structure of an application might not be appropriate. Instead, it’s important to identify specific tasks the end user will be using, then develop the help manual around those tasks.

At the highest level, a task orientation breaks the manual into sections that reflect the main autonomous areas in the users’ work. Within a section, a user should find all the topics for a specific area of work without having to refer to topics in other sections. Each topic should be organized around one idea–”how to perform this task”–and use verbs to identify each topic: “Creating an order,” “Updating an existing customer,” “Deleting a credit.”

To create a user manual for an order-entry system, I divided the manual into sections on creating orders, changing orders, managing customers, reviewing status, and getting reports. This reflected the tasks performed by different groups in the company: Sales staff needed to be able to create orders, but changing orders was the responsibility of customer service reps, for instance. Both sales staff and customer service reps needed to be able to change customer information, while managers used the system’s reports.

Manual sections don’t have to be divided by job description. Stages in the business process often define the tasks and the resulting sections in the manual. The manual for one system I worked on was used almost exclusively by the company’s purchasing staff. However, the manual still divided naturally into sections on creating orders, expediting orders, and reviewing status. While the same person performed all three tasks, users would first create an order and only days later need to expedite it. The review process was an ongoing activity, independent of the other two processes.

At the highest level, a task orientation controls the sections and topics for your manual. At the next level of detail, a task orientation means that each paragraph in the manual should begin with the reason that the user wants to read it. Most paragraphs should begin with “To accomplish this. . .”: “To change the customer address. . .,” “To eliminate this message. . . ,” or “To have the system automatically process incoming mail. . . .” At the lowest level, a task orientation means that vocabulary should always reflect the terms used in performing the task. Rather than write about the “order-entry form,” you can simply say “the order.”

When a task involves several steps, a number of techniques have been developed for handling sequences of instructions. My preference is for the PlayScript style. The PlayScript technique breaks instructions into a series of steps to be performed by the user. For each action, the PlayScript includes the feedback the user will receive. A sample PlayScript, describing how to create an order in an order entry system, might look like this:

  1. Select File | New Order Displays
  2. Enter customer number Message appears if customer not found
  3. Enter order information Message appears if products not found
  4. Click on Date button Calendar appears
  5. Select delivery date Calendar disappears
  6. Click on Save button Order is cleared

Page format

Ideally, each task will occupy one page. I say this because if a topic fits on one page, the user doesn’t have to turn pages to get all the information that he or she needs. More than three pages on a topic is almost certainly too many.

Each topic should be accompanied by a graphic that develops the material for readers who learn best from pictures. Graphics should include screen shots that reflect what the actual screen will look like. By referring to the screenshots in the body of the manual, you provide a way for users to move from the word to the graphic to the action on the screen. Block graphics showing how individual steps coincide give users a sense of how all the parts fit together. If the topic fits on a single page, the facing page can include the relevant graphics.

What you leave out is as important as what you put in. It’s not necessary to list a series of mind-numbingly simple steps covering every action to be taken . Instead, a “minimalist design” focuses on four key ideas:

  • Secondary material is left out (overviews, introductions, and so forth).
  • The focus is on what users can use right now to be productive.
  • Exploration of the application is encouraged (details are left out, the manual reflects a “try this…” attitude).
  • The relationship between the text and the computer screen is simple.

In laying out the page, don’t fill the page with text–leave room for the user to make notes. I leave a third of my page for the outside margin. The only things that I put in that space are subheadings that identify “hot spots” within a topic. Once the user has found the topic he or she wants, he or she can scan down the margin to find the needed information and write any comments right beside my text.

If you’re minimizing the secondary material, including introductions and overviews, there is a real danger that your readers will get lost. As a result, you need to make the organization of the manual obvious. I use a “context box” in the upper left hand corner of the page, at the beginning of each topic, to show readers where they are and where they’re going (if they’re reading sequentially). The box shows the current topic in boldface, along with the section under which the topic falls, and where the topic falls in the section. Readers can use the context block to find related items. If there’s room, I include other section headings, so that readers can see the full range of the application. As the name implies, this block provides readers with a context that shows them where this particular topic fits in the scheme of things. Using this article as an example, a context block for this section might look like this:

Why user manuals are important

The process

Organizing the manual

Laying out the page

Using graphics

What to put in

Keeping readers from getting lost


All of the techniques that I’ve described in this article depend on each other. For instance, in the PlayScript that I used above, a user might enter a bad customer number. The PlayScript simply says that an error message appears, since a minimalist approach to the user manual doesn’t list everything. The PlayScript, for instance, doesn’t mention that a “Create Customer” button is included on the error message’s dialog. When the user clicks on that button they will be taken to the Customer Update form. If the user was reading along with the PlayScript, a look at the context block might show “Adding a customer” as a topic heading or “Managing Customers” as a section in the manual. If the user wasn’t using the manual but now needs to, he or she could pull the manual off the shelf and look for the “Adding a customer” topic in the table of contents.


In addition to the direction and feedback that your end users can give you, a number of excellent books on creating user manuals are commercially available. The book that I’ve relied on for a number of years is Writing Better Computer User Documentation by R. John Brockmann, from John Wiley & Sons. The book has (at best) a workmanlike design, but the information is invaluable and the structure is an excellent example of what a good user manual should be. The book describes a variety of styles and techniques and reports on a great deal of the available research.

Creating an effective user manual doesn’t have to be a painful activity. Nor is your manual doomed to be ignored by your users. If you clearly identify whom your manual is aimed at and what you want to accomplish with it, if you build in early involvement from your users, if you maintain a task orientation and organize your pages to present the information completely, then you’ll have created a successful manual. And, when the phone calls drop off, you might even get some coding done.


Other Pages At This Site That You Might Like To Read

Managing Margins Of Text Box and Label Controls

Handling Visual Complexity

About Peter Vogel

After 10 years of editing Smart Access, Peter continues to develop with Access (though he also does a lot of .NET stuff). Peter is also still editing other people's article--he even self-published a book on writing user manuals ("rtfm*") with a blog here.
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