Bad Manuals: How to Tell If Your Manual Needs An Overhaul


Do you remember the last time you tried to use a bad manual?

What was the problem with it? Bad manuals are frustrating. In fact, they can damage how your customers perceive your brand. That’s why it’s worth reviewing your manuals to see if they need an overhaul. So dig out one of your manuals, and follow along.

1. Imprecise or Inconsistent Language

Fundamentally, manuals instruct users on how to do something. There’s an entire lexicon for technical communication, which keeps procedures consistent and understandable. For instance, many software companies use the Microsoft Manual of Style as their preferred style guide for computer interface instructions.

Good instructions are usually best expressed in present-tense, imperative statements. Avoid pleasantries and other distracting fluff. Ensure your references are clear and exactly match the user’s interface. Consider the following examples:

Incorrect Constructions

  • You will next click OK.
  • You should then click “OK.”
  • Please click okay.

Correct Construction

  • Click OK.

Does your manual use the same, simple style consistently? If not, you may have a bad manual worth fixing.

2. Misalignment

Look at the big picture. Hold your manual at arm’s length, and evaluate the layout. Are the margins consistent? What about the white space between text and graphics?

Most importantly, look at your procedures. Some companies try to save money by cramming too much content onto the page. Steps become convoluted. White space actually performs an important function by separating content into understandable steps. However, bad manuals just squeeze as much ink onto the page as possible.

3. Poor Images

Consider your graphics. How well do they depict your procedures? Do you have enough images? Is their quality consistent? Do they provide the best angles?

Whether out of laziness, a misplaced sense of know-how, or limited reading proficiency, many users will attempt your manual’s procedures while relying only on your images rather than your written instructions. Are your manual’s graphics good enough to stand on their own?

How is your iconography? Do you use icons to highlight warnings, notes, tips, and steps? Do they make sense? Are they consistent with the style of other visual elements in your manual?

What about your creative elements? Is your design as creative as you would like? Do you have tired stock images to replace? How appealing is your cover page?

Bad manuals neglect graphics. They use cheap visuals as an afterthought. Good 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, your manual should reflect your brand.

For example, if you engineer complicated components for a safety-conscious industry like aviation, then your instructional tone should 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. What’s your tone? Does it match your brand personality?

Your manual’s branding should also be reflected in your manual’s visual appearance. Is your logo prominently displayed? Are your brand’s colors exactly matched throughout the manual? Are your fonts? Do creative elements reflect your brand personality? These details are opportunities to tell your organization’s story. Don’t miss out.

5. Hidden Help

Imagine you’re a customer with a question that isn’t answered by the manual. Envision where you would turn in the document to find additional guidance online, by phone, etc. Then, look in your manual to see if that’s where your instructions about additional help are located.

Was your help hidden?

Hidden help frustrates your fan base. Customers have to search the web for help, perhaps finding angry rants in a forum, or even discovering your competitors’ products. Instead, give your manual obvious customer support instructions. This allows you to control users’ experiences. Provide a specific URL to relevant online documentation that you can track with analytics. Let the brand messaging you’ve already built on your website fight users’ cognitive dissonance. Get the most benefit from your customer support expenditure by making help easy to find.

6. Increased Customer Support

Sometimes our perspective as authors prevents us from seeing gaps in documentation. It’s always helpful for manual developers to receive actual user feedback. One of the easiest ways to do this is to confer with your customer service department. At a minimum, we recommend that you ask the following questions:

  • Which products or versions do customers complain about most?
  • What questions do you answer over and over again?
  • Which documentation pages on your website receive the most traffic?

The answers you receive from customer service could illuminate all kinds of business intelligence. If customer service has lots of feedback at the ready, then you should strongly consider reviewing your manuals. Pay special attention to those issues that could be avoided by making manuals more complete, clear, and engaging.

Do You Have Bad Manuals?

If your manuals have any of these issues, your documentation may need an overhaul. That’s what we do. Our projects team revises and formats manuals across a range of industries. Our staffing team finds talented tech writers for contract placements and the long-term. Tell us how we can help you develop manuals that connect with customers.

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