At first glance a user manual may seem well written, structured and designed. However, there are many elements that need to be considered when writing a user manual, to ensure it can do the job it is meant to.
Keep reading to find some information to help you quickly test the usefulness of any manual.
As a general guide a well written user manual should have:
- Clear and concise language – the manual should be easily understandable through being tailored to the target audience.
- Clear instructions and guidelines – the manual should provide clear instructions and guidelines for using the product correctly and safely.
- Appropriate language and tone – the manual should use appropriate language and tone for the target audience.
- Consistent formatting – the manual should have a consistent formatting style throughout the document.
- User-friendly layout – the manual should have a user-friendly layout with adequate white space, headings, and subheadings to improve readability and comprehension.
- Logical sequence – the manual should present information in a logical, step-by-step sequence.
- Easy navigation – the manual should be well-organized and easy to navigate with clear headings, subheadings, and page numbers.
- Comprehensive coverage – the manual should cover all aspects of the product and provide sufficient guidance for users.
- Use of visuals – the manual should incorporate visuals such as diagrams, images, and illustrations to better explain complex information.
- Helpful tips and troubleshooting information – the manual should include helpful tips and troubleshooting information to assist users with common issues and problems.
When assessing the usefulness of a user manual there are several key areas for you to focus. Let us look at these areas in more detail.
Alignment is an essential aspect of user manuals as it enhances the readability and organisation of the content, while helping to reduce the chances of errors or confusion, which can hamper the usability of the manual. Good alignment ensures that the text, images, and diagrams are placed correctly and uniformly throughout the manual, making it easier for users to locate and understand the information they need. Proper alignment also helps to create a professional and polished look for the manual, which can promote user confidence in the product or service being described.
Check that margins are consistent on each page and that all elements are in alignment. Check tables are of equal widths (normally they should span margin-to-margin). Check bullet levels are consistently aligned throughout. Compare like-for-like elements, header should align with header, footer should alignment with footer etc.
The contents list is the main starting point for using and navigating a user manual, it is important that it is easy to understand. Text should be well spaced and easy to read. Numbering should be included to help users navigate to the required section, with numbers linked to the page within the manual for ease of navigation. Headings should clearly tell the user what they contain.
Check that sections at the same heading level are aligned, as well as the page numbering. Check that chapters are in a logical order. Check that the contents list is an appropriate length (and heading depth) for the size of the manual.
Numbering helps users to quickly locate a specific section within a manual. When users have a clear understanding of the layout and structure of the document, they can easily navigate through it to find the information they need.
Standardised numbering enhances the consistency, coherence, and uniformity of the manual, making it easier for users to understand the instructions.
Consistent numbering and formatting at each heading level, makes it easy for users to understand the hierarchy of the information presented in the manual.
Check numbers run in sequence with no gaps or duplicates. Check the last page to make sure the total pages matches the last page number. Check the page numbering shown on the contents list lead to the corresponding sections. If there is separate serial numbering for figures and tables, check these are also in sequence.
Tables should ideally be the full width of the page with consistent styling within the manual, with the manual having no more than 3 different table designs. If you are inconsistent with table widths the manual will look untidy and be more difficult to skim read. The font should not be so small that it is difficult to read.
Check for adequate spacing for the text in each cell and that the contents are aligned.
Header / Footer
Including numbering in the header helps users to reference specific sections of the manual when seeking clarification.
The header and footer should contain the right amount of information so that at any page the user knows what they are reading, where they are in the manual and the nature of the chapter. As a minimum you would expect to find the manual title, product name, chapter, page number and the supplier or manufacturer’s name. Below is a list of typical contents:
- The name of the product (or company)
- The version or release number of the product (if any)
- The document title
- The date of publication or last update
Any relevant logos or design elements
- Copyright information (e.g., © 2021, All Rights Reserved)
- Contact information for the company or support team
- Website or URL for the product or company
- Revision history or version control information
- Legal disclaimers or warranty information (if required)
- Confidentiality or privacy statements (if applicable)
- Page numbers (e.g., Page X of Y)
Spacing is often overlooked by non-professional writers but is very important to the readability and overall look and feel of a user manual, for the following reasons:
Improved readability: Adequate spacing between lines, paragraphs, and headings can help users skim through the content and locate important information quickly.
Avoid confusion: Cluttered text and insufficient line spacing can make the manual hard to follow, leading to confusion among users.
Enhance appearance: Poor formatting and crowded text can make a user manual look unprofessional and unappealing. Good spacing makes it easier on the eyes, and hence more visually appealing.
Accessibility: Good spacing makes the manual accessible to a broader audience, including those with visual impairment or reading difficulties. It is recommended that the line height is 1.5 x the font size to aid readability for the visually impaired.
Overall, incorporating good spacing into a user manual helps to create a more user-friendly document, making it easier for users to understand and follow the content.
Clarity of images
Clarity of images is a complex area, as it relies on the quality of the original image, the image type, and how the final user manual is processed. As a rule images should not be pixelated, should not be too small so to be difficult to identify the subject, should be of consistent sizes throughout the user manual to improve flow and readability.
Figure numbers and/or titles should be added to allow you to refer to the images in the text.
It is important that an appendix is used correctly to supplement the user manual. By using an appendix you will free up space in the manual for instructions and allow the manual to flow better. The appendix contents should be referred to in the manual wherever necessary to bring it to the users attention. The appendix should be properly structured with navigation and numbering.
Paragraphs should not be too long to read. Long paragraphs should be broken down into smaller packets of information, so they are easier to follow and understand. Typically the user has little knowledge of the user manual subject, and will find short bite-size tasks easier to follow.
A user manual’s preface should typically include the following sections:
- Introduction: Introduce the product being described in the user manual.
- Purpose: Explain the purpose and goals of the user manual.
- Intended Audience: Identify the intended audience that the user manual is designed for.
- Scope: Explain what the manual covers and what it does not cover.
- For Your Safety: Include any safety warnings and precautions for users to keep in mind when using the product.
- Conventions: Provide explanations of any symbols, notations or terminology used in the manual.
- How to Use the Manual: Provide instructions on how to navigate and use the manual to effectively use and maintain the product.
- Product Information: Provide relevant information about the product, including its specifications, features, and functions.
- Technical Support: Provide contact information for technical support for any technical issues with the product.
Here are some further tips on how to critique a user manual. By using these guidelines, you can deliver productive feedback that can help the writer improve the user manual.
Read the manual thoroughly: Before providing any feedback, it is essential to read the manual thoroughly to understand the instructions.
Check for clarity: The manual must be easy to understand, and the language should be clear and jargon-free.
Check for accuracy: The instructions provided in the manual must be accurate and reliable to ensure that users can achieve the desired results.
Check for completeness: The manual should cover all the necessary information needed to accomplish the task.
Check for organisation: The manual should be well-organised and laid out in a logical sequence.
Check for visuals: The manual should include useful visuals, such as diagrams or screenshots, to help users follow the instructions.
Check for indexing and glossary: A manual should have indexing and a glossary, which will make it easier for readers to find the information they need.