Useful or Useless: How to Tell If Your Manual Needs An Overhaul


Various types of technical manuals are meant to make complex information more accessible to end users. However, we’ve all experienced the mind-numbing frustration of trying to follow documents with too much technical jargon that are difficult to understand.

Bad user guides make the reader feel frustrated and create more questions than answers. Poorly written instructions ruin the customer experience. The same is true for internal documents, such as training manuals, release notes, or the company knowledge base.

Fortunately, with careful planning and a few best practices, you can overhaul all sorts of technical information. Read on to discover the difference between good and bad technical documentation to enhance internal documentation and customer support.

1. Imprecise or Inconsistent Language

Manual development falls under the umbrella of technical writing. Technical writers work on multiple types of documentation, including user manuals, maintenance manuals, procedures manuals, and other technical content.

Technical writing needs to convey ideas in a coherent train of thought. However, contributions from multiple writers or piecemeal changes to a document can result in choppiness in a manual’s style, tone, point of view, and more. For example, the text may address readers as “users” in one paragraph and “you” in the next. The tone of voice may fluctuate between warm and conversational to complex and scientific. Jumps in tone and tense can confuse end users.

Effective manuals use precise, consistent language and favor plain English over jargon-heavy buzzwords. This helps readers focus on the content, rather than being confused by unclear language or inconsistent terminology. Of course, anyone who’s tried to assemble a piece of IKEA furniture also knows that overly-simplified instructions can be as bad as complex jargon. Be careful to balance visuals and text to ensure the end user can find what they’re looking for.

Style guides help technical writers avoid imprecise or inconsistent language. These guidelines define the technical specifications, standards, and conventions used in a specific field or industry. When it comes to technical documentation, common style guides include the Microsoft Style Guide, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook.

2. Misalignment and Formatting Issues

Look at the big picture. Hold your manual at arm’s length (or lean back in your chair from the screen), and evaluate the layout. Are the margins consistent—left to right, top to bottom? What about the white space between text and graphics? Do the headers and footers convey the document information and page numbers? Is there a table of contents to aid users in finding information?

Technical writing can be unavoidably complex. Even when applying plain English language as much as possible, long, unbroken chunks of text are hard to follow. White space actually performs an important function by separating content into understandable chunks that are easy on the eyes. Without enough white space, even step-by-step instructions seem convoluted.

While short words, sentences, and paragraphs are ideal, what’s most important is to use the most appropriate terms in the best manner possible. For example, bullet point templates can be used to break up passages and simplify the grammar since they don’t need to be full sentences.

Formatting is a crucial aspect of technical manuals. Ensure consistency by developing guidelines for various formatting elements, such as headings, lists, tables, and layouts. These guidelines should be stored in a knowledge base or company Wiki for quick access.

3. Poor Images

Text-heavy manuals aren’t as effective as technical content with images and visuals. People process visual information faster than written text, which means end users can process instructions faster when they include clear images.

Technical writers use graphics, illustrations, drawings, plots, and screenshots to help readers understand complex concepts and processes. For example, a labeled graphic clarifies step-by-step processes that involve multiple actions, parts, or components. Pictures may be added over the lifecycle of a technical document to highlight new features.

The type of document, use case, and target audience all influence how many images to include in technical documentation. For example, a maintenance manual for an engineering or manufacturing environment may require a number of illustrations to depict complicated schematics, product components, or manufacturing equipment. Apps and software development also rely on the use of diagrams and flow charts to explain concepts and give end users a step-by-step approach to successfully accomplish a task.

As with language and formatting, it’s important to develop a standard style or template for images. Rather than troubleshooting images on a case-by-case basis, technical writers can use brand standards to deliver consistent, high-quality documentation.

The best image file format depends on how content is delivered—you might not use the same format for online bulletins as you would for a printed maintenance manual:

  • GIF files are ideal for simpler images, small animations, and low-resolution video clips.
  • JPEG files are commonly used for photographs because they balance storage size and image quality.
  • PNG files are good for graphics, especially if they require transparency or use large, flat areas of color.
  • SVG files are well-suited to end-user interface elements, icons, diagrams, and more. This file format can be searched, indexed, scraped, compressed, and scaled in size without impacting quality.

Consider your graphics. How well do they depict your technical content? Are you relying on generic stock images or developing image formats that support use cases and technical specifications? Useful technical manuals invest in quality images that are thoughtfully arranged to support the instructions. Anything less detracts from your message.

4. Off-Branding

What is your organization’s brand? You may be smart, fun, whimsical, tough, trendy, or any number of other qualities. Whatever your organization is like, all of your technical documentation and manuals should reflect your brand identity.

For example, if you engineer complicated components for a safety-conscious industry like aviation, then your instructional tone might be serious, technical, and specific. By contrast, if you sell fun art supplies for teenagers, then your instructional tone can be light, simple, and inspiring.

Your brand identity should be reflected in everything from user guides, catalogs, training manuals, and more. A prominently displayed logo, consistent brand colors, and other creative elements enhance the validity of your brand personality. These details are opportunities to tell your organization’s story. Don’t miss out.

5. Hidden Help

Whether internal training manuals or external user guides, end users need to know where to find the answers to their questions. Technical content is only useful when the people who need it can readily find it. Useful manuals leverage formatting items like a table of contents and FAQs rather than letting end users “choose their own adventure” through the material.

This issue is especially common with online manuals. Without careful organization and adequate search tools, users must scroll through pages of text to find what they need. No matter the format, ensure your manuals address every piece of information the end user may need. Use headings, subheadings, lists, tables, and other formatting styles to organize content and highlight key information.

Be careful not to over-complicate instructions. The sheer number of new words and concepts can confuse readers. Technical documentation needs to be designed for the end user, not the product or system. Avoid abstract, noun-heavy phrases and replace them with strong, straightforward verbs. Make your sentences more direct and clear by using active voice instead of passive voice.

Do You Have Useless Manuals?

If your manuals have any of these issues, your technical documentation may need an overhaul. Technical manuals can be incredibly complex, and these issues barely scratch the surface of what can make or break all types of technical content.

Fortunately, ProEdit’s technical writers are well-versed in developing, revising, and formatting several types of technical manuals across a range of industries. Our project services team consists of writers, editors, instructional designers, and other creative professionals dedicated to addressing all of your project needs.

ProEdit has already helped more than 2,000 clients improve their communication materials. Ready to develop useful manuals that end users will actually read? Reach out, and let us know how we can help.

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