How do User Manuals Really Affect Customer Satisfaction?
The study published by Osman Gök, Pervin Ersoy, and Gülmüş Börühan in 2019 was intended to help fill a specific gap in product research: do user manuals actually affect the customer experience, and if so, why?
There is a popular myth that consumers will avoid using manuals if at all possible, and that therefore manuals do not make a big difference on customer satisfaction. A wide body of work already exists to contradict the first half of this myth. User manuals are read, especially when a customer expects a product to be difficult to operate. (If you would like an example of one such study, be sure to check out P. Wright et al’s article from 1981. ) If user manuals are read, they do have an effect on the customer’s opinion of the project. (For one example, check out P. Smart et al’s article from 2001. ) What Gök and the research team addressed in this study was how the user manual affects customer satisfaction – and, therefore, your company’s reputation.
In order to do this, they collected surveys from consumers of both expensive, high-value products and inexpensive, low-value products. They asked a series of questions to determine the quality of the user manual, the background of the consumers themselves (how experienced they were with similar products), and the consumer’s opinion on the product.
The study was focused on customer satisfaction. Their findings were threefold. First of all, the team found that there is a direct correlation between the quality of the user manual and the perceived value of the product. Second, the perceived product quality had a direct effect on customer satisfaction. Interestingly, Gök and the team did not find a direct correlation between the user manual quality and customer satisfaction, especially when examining expensive, high-value products. That leads us to the third thing that they tested for, and the most interesting part of the study: a set of features that the team refers to as moderator effects.
Here is what that means:
A customer does not go straight from purchasing a product to forming an opinion on it. Customer satisfaction is basically the end of a long equation with a bunch of variables. Moderator effects are some of the variables that affect how a customer will perceive a product’s quality, and, by extension, how satisfied the customer will be. A user manual may not make a big difference in customer satisfaction by itself, but Gök in his team found it made a very big difference on perceived quality once you factored in these moderator effects.
The moderator effects they controlled for were:
- the monetary value of the product,
- the complexity of the product,
- how technical a product was, and
- the user’s experience level with similar products.
Sure enough, this is where the quality of the user manual becomes a major force. The stronger each one of these
variables was, the bigger the effect of the user manual on the perceived quality of the product. The monetary value
of the product is first in the list for a reason: in high-value products, the importance of all of these moderator
effects was greater. When a product is more valuable, making a judgment about the product is a complicated process.
Therefore, with more expensive products, the user manual improves the entire experience, and helps you guarantee that it goes smoothly. Having a user manual is just one of many factors that go into customer satisfaction.
This is an important point. With high-value products, we do not see a direct relationship affect on customer satisfaction, but we do see an effect on perceived product quality, which leads to customer satisfaction. Let’s use an analogy to understand this. Imagine your workplace just switched to a new software that improves efficiency in every part of your job, from communication to document management – but which has the most difficult user interface you have ever encountered. It takes you months to learn how to use the basic features. When filling out a survey on the product, you might respond favorably to every question that asks about the efficiency, value, or usefulness of the product. Even so, what you have is an efficient, valuable, and useful product that you will not recommend to others. The poor user interface may be just one part your user experience, but because it affects every part of your experience, it will end up affecting your opinion of the software.
That is how we should think of a user manual for an expensive product. When the moderating features – monetary value, complexity, technology, and user experience level – are high, we see a very strong relationship between the quality of the user manual and the perceived quality of the product itself. The entire customer experience is going to be more thoughtful and involved if those features are strong; the user manual serves as a road map to this complicated experience, and ensures that the user gets top functionality out of the product right from the get-go. On the other hand, when the four moderating features are low, the effect on customer satisfaction is more direct: A good user manual helps ease an inexperienced user into a simple and straightforward product experience without any difficulty.
In short: for inexpensive products, a high quality user manual will give the consumer the impression that the product is more valuable and higher-quality. For expensive products, the consumer will make that decision based on how successful their use of the product was – and a good user manual helps guarantee that success.
Let’s go back to that myth Gök and his team were trying to address: that consumers will avoid using the manual at all costs. This is only partly true.
Let me explain.
Historically, user manual use rate has not always been very high. Gök and the team believe this might be because of the ways consumers have been trained over time not to trust user manuals. Traditionally, user manuals have been complicated, technical, and difficult to understand. More recent research has shown that you can increase the chance a manual is used by making it simpler and easier to use, as well as by incorporating digital components such as videos. This simplification, and these digital components, will increase the chance a customer will use the manual. (For some examples of research in this area, see D. Gerbert’s 1988 study and D.T. Pham’s 2010 study)
As we have discussed, you want the consumer to read your manual. If you hope to develop a good reputation because you
are selling a good product that speaks for itself, you want a user’s entire experience to be positive from start to
finish. In effect, the user manual is not an addendum or a supplement to the product, but is a part of the product.
You want consumers to use the manual instead of trying to guess at the difficult features, and to consult it when they have an issue instead of just giving up. Gök and the team point out that in the past, user manuals have tended to be low-quality and unusable for the average consumer. If you make a digital user manual designed with a non-engineer in mind, you are a lot more likely to get people to use it.
In short: consumers absolutely do care about the manual insofar as it makes the product work better. Any minor difficulty a consumer has with the product they purchased will reduce their perception of the product’s quality. On the other hand, when photographs, videos, and clear instructions make a user manual fool-proof, consumers are much more likely to consider the product high-quality, and therefore to review it favorably.
So, how did Gök and the research team determine user manual quality?
There are a number of ways you can measure manual quality, but basically, you want good results in two different categories. The first category concerns the actual content: you want the information to be complete, user-friendly, easy to access, relevant to the product, and properly diagrammed. The second category is about accessibility, such as the font size, the manual size, the simplicity of language, and how high-quality the physical manual itself is. (This is another reason to digitize your user manual: videos are much more accessible than text, and aids such as screen readers and font size adjusters can be used with a digital manual.) You also need to convince the consumer that your user manual is worth reading, even if past user manuals were low-quality.
Here are the things that you want in your manual:
- Clear diagrams
- Digital integration
- Simple, consistent language
- Clear, step-by-step instructions
- Video demonstrations
- Large, easy-to-read print
- Good organization
A simple user manual, especially a digital one, is not simple to make – at least, not if you are attempting to make it from scratch. Fortunately, a lot of software is available to us that is explicitly designed for user manuals and information transmission.
First, collect your media. If you have diagrams of your product, have them at the ready, but it’s even better to work with a good set of photographs – you can take some photos yourself if you have a clean room and a good smartphone. Make sure you take some overview photos in which every component is visible (you can add captions and highlights later), and use a tripod to take a short video of each function.
Next, decide how you are going to make and publish your manual. You can format the information on your company website, but you will get better and more consistent results with a specially-designed tool. We are going to use virkis.com for this example: it’s a website specifically designed for user manual creation, and it’s much simpler than the common competitors. (Tools such as Madcap Flare are more complicated, which makes a consistent and easy-to-use manual design harder to achieve.)
Add an overview image that shows every part of your product’s setup. Using Virkis, make a box over each component. Label it with its name and purpose. This will keep the user from getting confused later on.
Now that you have your overview image, it’s time to add each step to your guide. Drag and drop images into the interface, making sure that they are in order. Keep each step as short as you can, and avoid technical terms unless absolutely necessary. If something in the product moves, or if there is a chance of confusion, add a video as part of the step.
When you are done, Virkis will give you a QR code, which you can include as part of the packaging, printed onto the product, or as a paper insert.
Consumers are receptive to this sort of digital aid, and if you consistently provide it, then you will build trust, brand loyalty, and a strong reputation over time. If your whole product speaks for itself, from the moment it enters your customer’s hands to the moment it’s served its purpose, you’re sure to end up with the reputation your product deserves.
- Osman Gök, Pervin Ersoy, Gülmüş Börühan, 2019, "The effect of user manual quality on customer satisfaction: the mediating effect of perceived product quality", Journal of Product & Brand Management: https://doi.org/10.1108/JPBM-10-2018-2054
- P. Wright, P. Creighton, S. M. Threlfall, 1982, “Some factors determining when instructions will be read”, Ergonomics: https://doi.org/10.1080/00140138208924943 https://doi.org/10.1080/00140138208924943
- K. L. Smart, J. L. Madrical, K. K. Seawright, 1996, “The effect of documentation on customer perception of product quality”, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication: https://doi.org/10.1109/47.536264
- Dörte Gerbert, 1988, “Gebrauchsanweisungen als Marketing-Instrument,” Gebrauchsanweisungen als Marketing-Instrument
- D. T. Pham, R. M. Setchi, & S. S. Dimov, 2012, “Enhanced product support through intelligent product manuals,” International Journal of Systems Science: https://doi.org/10.1080/00207720210133624