How to Create a User Manual: From Zero to Hero (Full Guide)
Not sure how to create a user manual to help your customers get more value from your product?
A user manual is content that helps your customers (or employees) use your product or service effectively. You also might see it called a user guide, instruction manual, product manual, and so on.
Beyond helping your customers effectively use your product, creating a high-quality user manual can also help you cut down on customer service and support requests because users can solve their problems without reaching out to support.
In this detailed guide, you’ll learn how to create a user manual that helps your customers achieve success.
To make that happen, here’s everything that we’re going to cover:
- Different types of user manuals
- Where to publish your user manual
- How to create a user manual
Let’s dig in!
Different Types of User Manuals
There are different types of user manuals, including both customer-facing and internal content.
Before you get started, it’s important to understand which type of manual you want to create, as that will affect how you approach the content.
Here’s a quick summary of the different types of user manuals:
- User manual – a classic user manual teaches users how to use a product.
- Training manual – a training manual teaches users how to perform a certain task or complete a certain job.
- Operation manual – an operation manual is typically an internal manual that documents your company’s operations.
- Service manual – a service manual focuses on teaching users how to properly maintain a product at different points in the product life cycle.
- Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) – SOPs are internal manuals that teach organization members how to properly complete certain processes “the right way”.
For the instructions below, we’re mostly concerned with creating a public-facing user manual. However, the basic principles below will apply to any type of user manual.
Where to Publish Your User Manual
Where you publish your user manual will depend on the type of user manual that you’re creating.
For customer-facing user manuals, you’ll almost always want to publish them on your website. That way, users can access the manual from anywhere.
What’s more, publishing user manual content on the web also lets you create a more user-friendly experience than you can with a physical user manual, such as adding clickable tables of contents and real-time search suggestions.
However, for physical products, you also might want to include a physical user manual as a companion to your web-based manual.
For internal user manuals, you’ll typically want to hide them from public view.
One way to accomplish this is by only making them available on a company intranet. However, with so many people working from home, this can be difficult to do unless your company has its own VPN setup.
Instead, you can consider password protecting the content, either by requiring the employee to log in to a user account or just adding a password to access the page.
For physical user manuals, you can use a dedicated knowledge management tool to help you publish more complex manuals. Or, for simpler user manuals, you can just write in Google Docs and publish from there – our collection of technical writing tools has some useful tools to make your life easier.
To publish your user manual online, you can use most documentation or knowledge base software. If you want a tool that can handle both public-facing and internal user manuals, you can consider the open-source Heroic Knowledge Base plugin for WordPress. We’ll talk about this in more depth in the tutorial.
Here’s an example of an online user manual from Heroic Knowledge base (and about Heroic Knowledge Base):
Speaking of the tutorial…
How to Create a User Manual In Six Steps
Now that you have some background information, let’s get into how to create a user manual, starting from zero and going all the way to a finished user manual.
1. Create Your User Persona(s)
Before you start creating any content, you want to understand who the content is for, which you can accomplish by creating user personas.
You probably already have a good idea of who your customers are, but it’s helpful to write this down to really focus your efforts.
Why is this important?
Well, here’s an example:
There’s a big difference between creating technical content for mechanical engineers and creating technical content for non-technical users.
For most products, the differences won’t be that stark. But it’s still important to understand your customer personas so that you can ensure your user manual makes sense to the people who will actually be using it.
2. Identify the Key Problem(s) and Goal(s)
Once you understand who your customers are, the next step is to understand what they’re trying to achieve with the user manual that you’re going to create.
That is, what is the end goal (or end goals) of the people who will be reading this manual?
Understanding this is important because the purpose of your manual should be to help your users achieve that goal as efficiently as possible.
In some cases, this end goal might be a specific thing. For example, if you have a social media management tool, it might be “scheduling a post on social media”.
In others, it might be a more abstract goal, such as “improving our project management processes”.
For larger products, there might be multiple things that the user is trying to achieve, which leads us to the next section.
3. Create a Logical Structure and Hierarchy
Now that you understand who your customers are and what they want to achieve, you can start mapping out the structure for your user manual.
You want to create a structure that will take your users from “zero” to achieving the end goal(s) that you listed out in the previous section.
Here are some tips to help you do this:
- Think about how to help customers start getting value from your product as quickly as possible.
- Take your own personal knowledge out of it. You obviously know a lot about your product, but your customers won’t have that level of background knowledge.
- Make sure to cover any common problems or confusing details that your customers might encounter when trying to use your product. These should be addressed logically at the times when customers are most likely to run into issues.
4. Write Your User Manual Content
Once you’ve mapped out your content, you’re ready to start writing.
Depending on the size of your product/organization, you might write everything yourself. Or, you might need to collaborate with other team members to write the content.
Here are some general user manual best practices to consider while writing your user manual:
- Use a template to ensure consistent formatting. Creating a formatted template not only speeds up your work, but it also ensures that each article in your manual is consistent with the others.
- Include visuals (images and videos) to help users. A well-annotated image or GIF can be more helpful than standalone text instructions, no matter how detailed and thorough the text is.
- Use plain language and avoid jargon. Or, when jargon is completely unavoidable, make sure to explain it.
- Keep it short and to the point. Your goal with a user manual should be to fully cover the topic, but in as few words as possible. Don’t leave out important information, but do ruthlessly cut any unnecessary content.
- Use bullets and lists for instructions when possible. Using a numbered or bulleted list can make it easy for users to keep track of the guide. Or, if you need more detail than a list allows, you can make each step its own subheading.
- Use active voice. Passive voice can be especially confusing for the instructions in a user manual. It’s the difference between “The product can be turned on by pushing the red button” and “You can turn on the product by pushing the red button”. The latter example (active voice) is clearer and makes it easier for the reader to put themselves in the instructions.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to test your user manual instructions as if you were a first-time user.
That is, once you’ve written an article, go back and actually follow those instructions step by step to make sure you didn’t miss anything.
5. Publish Your User Manual
Once you have your content, the last step to go live is to publish your user manual to make it easily available to your customers.
How you do this will depend on what type of product you’re offering. For example, you might want to include a physical version of your manual if you’re shipping physical products.
However, no matter what type of product you’re offering, you’ll want to publish your user manual online so that people can easily find it.
To help you do that, you can use knowledge base/documentation software.
For example, with the Heroic Knowledge Base WordPress plugin, you can publish your user manual using the open-source WordPress software.
This open-source approach gives you full ownership and control over your platform, while still providing lots of useful tools to help your customers navigate your user manual more effectively:
- Category organization – you can easily organize your user manual into logical categories and order those categories using drag and drop.
- Real-time search suggestions – if customers want to jump straight to a specific tutorial, they can just start typing in the search and see live search suggestions based on their queries.
- Automatic table of contents – the plugin will automatically generate a clickable table of contents for each user manual article, which helps readers jump straight to the section that’s relevant to them.
- Easy callouts/formatting – you can easily add callouts and other formatting to draw attention to key elements in your articles.
- Instant answers widget – in addition to creating a dedicated user manual page on your site, you can also add a searchable instant answers widget that lets visitors browse user manual content from anywhere on your site.
If you want to see even more options for software to help you publish a user manual, you can read our posts on the best knowledge base software and the best documentation tools.
6. Update and Revise Your User Manual As Needed
Creating a user manual is not a one-time effort. Going forward, you’ll need to put time into revising and updating your content.
There are two main reasons why you might need to update your user manual:
- You added new features to your product or changed how existing features/interfaces work.
- You want to improve your user manual content to make it more helpful.
The first situation is obvious – if you change your product in some way, you need to update your user manual to account for those changes.
However, the second situation is important to also factor in. Try as you might, you probably won’t get every user manual article perfect from day one.
To better help your users, you’ll want to update and revise low-performing manual content to make it more useful.
If you publish your user manual with a tool like Heroic Knowledge Base, it includes built-in article helpfulness ratings so that you can easily see which articles need to be improved. Users can also leave text feedback on the article, which can point you to specific parts of the article that aren’t helping as much as they could be:
You also could be missing articles for topics that users are having issues with. To help you find these missing topics, Heroic Knowledge Base also includes built-in search analytics so that you can track which searches don’t have any topic results (as well as overall searches in general):
Create Your User Manual Today
Learning how to create a user manual is important if you want to set your customers up for success.
With the tips and best practices in this post, you should now have the knowledge that you need to get up and running with your user manual.
For an easy way to publish your user manual online and help your customers navigate it, you can use WordPress and the Heroic Knowledge Base plugin.
Heroic Knowledge Base makes it easy to publish your articles and organize them as needed. Plus, your customers can take advantage of helpful features such as live search suggestions, automatic table of contents, and more.
Get started today and you’ll be publishing your user manual in no time.
If you’re interested in creating documentation to improve internal knowledge at your business, you also might be interested in our tutorial on how to publish a training manual for your staff.
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