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Writing An Instruction Manual – The Difficulties Encountered
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Writing An Instruction Manual – The Difficulties Encountered

Writing an outstanding instruction manual, a difficult thing to do.

You've just received your new cellphone, camera, or such new electronic wonder and while charging the batteries, you start to read the instruction manual. This can come in two forms, a PDF format or booklet, both starting with the basics, then the technical data and then the instructions. Nothing wrong with that except is it written with you in mind? An non-technical, idiotic person, who has trouble understanding the terminology.

Lets set the scene here, I have a computer program that is for a specific market, it's an analytical program around cost expenditure. A program I developed and modified over a four-year period. Who's more of an expert of the program than I? No one, not the computer programmers encoding the program, or any outsiders. So who writes the manuals of “how to” and “how to get the answers”? Me.

The first step of penning a manual is get out of your own head, and think like a first time user. Picture yourself as an idiot, never having seen anything like the object before. Obviously you know the object, you're the designer, developer or discoverer so you're the expert. So how to start? First give a broad outline of the object, its portions or parts and where to find them. A diagram comes in handy here with pictures and arrows, and short descriptions.

Now make lists, lists of contents, lists of objects and lists of descriptions. Contents, this aids users to easily find a section to which they want to refer, a page number or colour coded manual aids them to get to there easily. Objects, it might be a multi parts item, so this list aids the user to make sure that all parts are present and attached correctly. Descriptions, this is not always necessary, but some items might need describing and here pictures are a necessity. Pictures speak a thousand words and you'll be rewarded to remember this.

Follow with an outline of what the item is capable of doing, remember don't be over technical at this stage. Being to technical can see user tossing the manual aside and deciding to leg it alone, trial and error the result. This might be alright with a camera or phone, but its true potential will never be discovered. A computer program may also be attempted by trial and error, but you're assured you will never end with the results you're looking for. A simple program to manipulate photographs, is actually so technical, that if you want decent results, you have to learn to use the program and all its capabilities.

Following this, now get down to the teaching aids, keep them brief, use visual aids, pictures and short descriptions are the best. Short descriptions of the “how, what and why” keeps the user interested and it's not confusing.

There is no call to explain all the “behind the scenes” knowledge you have to a user, but rather what he needs to know is enough. Visual aids are most times easier to understand, so use them, not every users vocabulary is as advanced as yours. Follow the steps in chronological order, how the user would meet them as they begin to use the item, and leave the technicalities to last.

Once you have completed a section or the manual, become an idiot and start to follow your own instructions. Do you end with the results you want them to find? No, go back and correct your basics. Yes, then you've written a great manual. Remember that you might have to revise the manuals as the items progress or improve, so keep that in the back of your head when penning instructions and specially when describing results.

It is in some cases, better to offer a hands on instruction, this way the user gets a quick run through of the item, its abilities and how it works, the manual then becomes a “ready reckoner” for referring to when problems met. This would need the manual to appear in a slightly different format, rather as a referral than instruction manual, with more examples given.

Hope this helps anyone having to pen a manual, and I write from experience, I was to technical to begin with, and forgot no one else understands the inner workings of my program. Think of the users as idiots, and write so.


Street Talk

Putting yourself in the position of your customer is the best way to start any venture and what so many people forget. Great advice

Reply
  about 9 years ago

Thank you...

Reply
  about 9 years ago

Great way to get it done. Hey, how is the program going?

Reply
  about 9 years ago

Working my butt off on it... the testing to find errors etc takes hundreds of hours... I see now why computer programs are so expensive... it takes so much time and you have to try and do all the stupid things to find the errors before a perfect program is out... but we're getting there....

Reply
  about 9 years ago

A great article Rob I will share this with my husband who is more with these tech stuff and he will soon have to write a tech manual himself. I think he will find your experience very useful

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

It is not an easy thing to do.. as one always assumes everyone understands what you mean.. I have found by standing back and following the instructions to the TEE, if the thing works I've done it right... otherwise I need to return and see where I've gone wrong...

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

So true somtimes it is hard to think of who you are actualy writing too most of the time .....how many have I read.....too tech no good to simple not great.....all done think it does what it is supposed to do....give it to the newbie potential customer see the reaction....good, great....not so good more to edit....no good to have a manual no one understands except for you.....:) Hope you are getting a good response Rob.....what program..does what????

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Thanks Tim mine is a financial analysis tool for a specific market, but the users are not known as the most computer literate... so it has set a bit of a challenge...

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

I am sure you are up for the challenge Rob....:)

  
  about 1 decade ago

Great article - well done. There is a great deal of effort put into manuals and many perhaps most get thrown in the bin because they have not approached it the way you are suggesting - which is of course a complete waste of effort, Have a great day, Keith

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Thanks Keith, I have had to look within myself to ensure that the manuals I produce are worth their weight in gold, it is going to be my future income... balls this up and I will be the loser...

Reply
  about 1 decade ago
Golfspice  

Sound advice Rob. KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is the perfect acronym for any manual. The reader should not have to think! to understand the content or follow instructions.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Now that is the acronym I was trying to remember KISS, thanks Bud that could be the article... KISS....

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Spot on! Well done. Hmm... idiots is a good term for your article. Just hit me that perhaps there's a kinder gentler term for inside of you so you stay as you are exuding you-ness?! Best wishes with your software release. Getting your "baby" in the hands of users world wide is your next step. The most exciting!!

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Thanks Cynthia, as a manual is written, I look at it from the point of view that maybe the person using it has never used a computer before and has to use my program... what help or aid would he need? and i write for him... you can only call them idiots in the nicest possible way... I watch many experts pick up a manual (and I do it myself) skip through till I find the bit I'm struggling with, the beginner will read it all... as I said to Mac my new camera is an example of a bad manual... I have to revert to the internet to find like minded strugglers asking the same questions and getting them from someone who has figured it out... a good manual should not be like that and should cater for the idiot and the expert will only read what they need... Yes the most exciting bit is nearing, the sales, and like a race horse I'm chomping at the bit... wanting to be released from the stall, to race... we have so much interest from the little that we have released, that I really look forward to the day that all is completed, tested, manuals finished and the company says GO GO GO...

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

You're right. Many people using your program will not have used the kind of computer they're on today very much. Even if they've used other computers, the pace of change is simply so fast you've got to assume that point of view that the person right now using your software needs help from you. Blessings on your software release and your GO GO GO!

  
  about 9 years ago

You hit it on the nail on the head with this one! I thought of all the times trying to explain a procedure or new program to the new guy. Keep it simple without all the surrounding details to muddy the water is best! The only limitation is the reader of an instruction manual cannot ask you any questions! I like you idea of putting yourself in the place of the one reading it for the first time. And asking the questions as you go. Awesome, Rob! Thanks for another story I just thought of about my Dad and I rebuilding a motor without any sort of manual! Oh what a hoot that was! LOL

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

Thanks Mac, when I bought my last camera it was the first really techie camera I'd owned. The manual is 154 pages long, its written by an expert who expects you to be 25 years old and a professional photographer... I have struggled no end understanding that manual and when I get stuck I turn to the internet and look there... I feel so much better as there I find users of the same camera struggling like me, getting aid from some one else who has figured it out.. Now that can only say one thing... not a good manual... I vowed to not have that with my program, so my manuals are written for the most non tech person alive... the expert will skip like most of us do, but the struggler aid will be in the hand as if I was sitting next to them...

Reply
  about 1 decade ago
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