The User Manual

The user manual of old has, unfortunately, largely disappeared from product documentation, especially for commercial products.

However, that doesn’t mean that customers don’t want them. Customers more often wish that they had a user manual that they could use separately from the software. Studies show that customers appreciate the ability to open a PDF or document that is well-organized, allowing them to quickly find the content they need at a given moment.

Remember the user manuals that Microsoft®, Adobe®, Aldus®, and many other companies provided you when you bought their products back in the 1980s? Well, dinosaurs lived longer. Back then, almost all manufacturers had staffs devoted to the production of technical documentation. Today, most customers wish that they had a user manual to use instead of embedded “Help.” They want the ability to open a well-organized PDF or document to quickly find the content they need at a given moment.

Customers use your manuals only as references. They want to quickly obtain an answer to a specific question of immediate concern to them.

The Missing Link

The most critical thing about a user manual is its organization. Unfortunately, many user manuals are written by the engineering staff who design the product.

Why? Because most engineers are focused on the elements that they designed and built. They completely understand the tools and plugins they have built that allow customers to use their product, but…

They rarely know how a customer will use the product. User scenarios should have played a critical role in the Requirement Analysis; The Requirements Analysis should have driven the Design Specification.…Just saying…

The “trick” to technical communication is communication. To communicate, you have to know and understand the audience who will use your content. Sometimes, the choice of terms confuses the issue. Your engineers, who have designed and produced The World’s Greatest Word Processing Application, know that the content entitled “Document Merge” describes how that function creates many copies of the same document, each addressed to a different addressee. The secretary who uses your product, however, may think that title describes how to take several different document files and merge them into one. If that is the case, the secretary pours over the table of contents and index, or searches—in vain—for a heading or content tagged for “mass mail” or “mail merge.”

Besides, the secretary probably looked for a section or chapter devoted to letters; he or she may also wish that the creation of memoranda and policies were the subjects of separate sections.

The Principle

Know your audience and their expectations and needs!

If your document is designed, written, and produced to satisfy this principle, you will realize these benefits:

 Customer satisfaction

 Significantly fewer calls to your Help center

 Great product reviews

 Increased sales


The content in your user manuals may be used in a variety of additional documentation, such as:

  • Marketing literature—ads, brochures, flyers, and so forth
  • Quick reference guides
  • Website content
  • Online blogs & Wikis


You can publish your user manuals on your Website—as a Wiki, for instance. Keep in mind the possibility that your customer may not be able to open your Web site. So, you should provide your manuals in, for instance, an electronic PDF document on a mini-CD or DVD. This form of publication is inexpensive and lets your customer open and search the file so that he or she can quickly find and print the content they need for reference.

How Do Adults Learn?

Adults most often learn by directing themselves and evaluating, on their own, the quality of their learning. In part, this reflects the different influences and demands upon an adult as opposed to a child. The science of teaching children is known as pedagogy whilst that of adult learning is andragogy. When an adult attends a class at a university or an instructor-led seminar, she or he is being taught pedagogically. On the other hand, when your customer installs, opens, and tries to use your product—either hardware or software—he or she is learning andragogically since the adult learner directs his or her own training.