How to write instructions for a user manual

The main function of any user instruction manual is to provide clear and concise instructions as to how to use a specific product, item or service. Whilst this may seem an obvious statement, many user guides have incomplete, incorrect or difficult to follow instructions – here are some guidelines to compiling successful, understandable, easy-to-follow instruction manuals for your end-user customers:

How To Write Instructions

1. Step by step

Lay out the instructions in a thorough and logical order – provide a simple step-by-step sequence of instructions in the correct order.

2. Sequencing

Follow and clearly define the sequencing and timing of all the actual operations required from start to finish.

3. Make It visual

It is always helpful to provide visual ’stepping stones’ for your user to follow and keep track of – much like this list, number individual steps in order (Step 1, Step 2 etc.)

4. Keep it short

People like instructions to be short and concise – avoid using long, ‘wordy’ paragraphs and keep the individual instructions brief and as simple as possible.

5. Avoid jargon

Not everybody has industry-specific knowledge so avoid jargon and technical words and references – use mainstream, everyday words and terms that people will be familiar and comfortable with.

6. Explain each function

Ensure that your user understands what each individual function and feature is for, as well as explaining the “How to” aspects of them – use basic, practical terminology to explain the features.

7. Ensure accuracy

Check that the instructions being issued match in every way the product being accessed – instructions for a similar or different product will only confuse and frustrate the user, casting doubt over the quality and reliability of the product itself.

8. Provide ‘key’ guide

Explain clearly all the symbols, icons, terms and codes of the product that the user will be dealing with – with visual representations always helpful.

9. Give respect to the user

User manuals can sometimes appear to ‘talk down’ to the user – they often have a patronising tone to the wording and instruction. Show your reader some respect and credit them with some intelligence.

10. Do not assume

The other side of the previous point is to not assume that your user has any prior knowledge or experience of your product or service, so ensure all instructions are thorough.

11. Test run

Try out your instructions on some people first – choose people with no prior knowledge of the product, not regular product users or designers.

12. Steps to completion

When composing your user manual, do so whilst actually using the relevant product yourself. When you have written the steps to task completion in this manner, get independent verification of your instructions – have someone follow the instructions and clarify with them that they could easily and comfortably work through the instructions from start to end, that it was easy to ‘break out’ from the task then re-join it, and that it is comfortable to access the user manual at, and from, any point in the process and follow it to completion.

When composing and compiling your user manual printing, following the above guidelines will help you produce a helpful, user-friendly and productive list of instructions to guide and help your customers to enjoy your product and its features to the best advantage and performance.    


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