online user manual

What do design professionals have to say about ease of use?

If a customer is purchasing your product for the first time, you want to make sure they can pick it up and use it as quickly as possible. Unless they purchase it from a salesperson who demonstrates the functions directly, however, consumers are on their own. Any confusion about a product is a major inhibiting factor to their ability to use it at all.

The paper we’re looking at today was published by Nenad Pavel and Emilene Zitkus for the International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education. Pavel and Zitkus were inspired to do the study in part on the writings of Klaus Krippendorf. This philosopher considered usability to be the most important feature of a user-object relationship, with the design of the object itself serving to facilitate this relationship. Pavel and Zitkus are specifically looking at product affordances, and how they help consumers learn the skills needed to make use of a product.

Affordance properties are all of the things that change how we relate to a product, but not how the product itself functions. For example, the user interface is an affordance, and accessibility features provide affordance to individuals with disabilities. Well-designed affordances make it easy for a given user base to use the product. Pavel and Zitkus wanted to look at one basic affordance feature – the user manual – and understand it from a learning perspective: You want your customer to be totally comfortable using your product. With this in mind, how can you ensure they learn quickly?

What do design professionals say about user manual design?

The study was done in 2017 for the International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education. User manuals are usually made by engineers, but in order to quickly grasp how an average person interacts with a piece of technology, they interviewed design professionals. The study itself was a set of interviews: three people in the product design industry were given a dremel set and asked to use it. No specific instructions were given – the subjects were free to use the manual or ignore it – but the researchers did encourage them to discuss their thoughts on the product. After the product test, each one was asked to redesign the instructions and discuss how those redesigns might improve the product.

Pavel and Zitkus then wrote an analysis of each of the interviews. Each subject had a different set of suggestions for improving the user experience, but all of the suggestions were practical and user-focused:

The moderator effects they controlled for were:

  1. The first interviewee didn’t elect to use the manual, because she already had experience with a similar product; instead, she drew on past experience. When she originally learned to use these tools, she didn’t touch the manual then, either. Instead, she searched the internet for help. This participant stressed the importance of videos for learning, and added that both the provided manual and most videos had too much information and “took a long time to get to the point” (page 3 of the study).
  2. The second interviewee was more focused on the product itself. Because the dremel was only useful to a fairly small target audience, she said that the product manual should include plenty of images that showed the product in use – along with any add-ons that were not included with the product. That way, any prospective customers could easily envision themselves using the product. She also recommended that a clear set of set-up instructions should be the first item in the manual.
  3. The third interviewee found the manual, and manuals in general, confusing. She considered it too hard to find information that was useful – or even which part of the manual was in the correct language – quickly enough. She recommended completely redesigning the packaging, placing labels on each part so that there was no ambiguity about what each part did.

Behaviorist, Constructionist, and Cognitive approaches to product training

Pavel and Ziktus looked at the interview responses under the lens of a few different learning theories.

  • Behaviorist: Behaviorism emphasizes a stimulus-response model for learning. Step-by-step instructions help a user break down a task into parts and learn it more easily by repetition. Attaching clear labels directly to the parts of a product also attaches a stimulus to each one, encouraging quick learning.
  • Cognitive: Cognitive theory focuses on “how information is received, organized, stored, and retrieved” (page 5 of the study). Mapping out the parts of the product helps a user organize the information and understand it quickly. When interviewees focused on the organization and presentation of information, this supported a cognitive approach to learning.
  • Constructivist: Constructivism emphasizes experience as a means of learning. When the interviewees recommended pictures and videos of the tool being used, they were essentially recommending that the proper use be modeled, so that the user can watch, imitate, and learn to understand the tool accordingly.

How do I make a user manual that works?

The interviewees in this paper gave several solid, practical suggestions for effective user manuals. Here are the ones that you can put into practice quickly and inexpensively:

Your customers will use a search engine to understand your product. Make sure they find you first.

The first interviewee didn’t even touch the paper manual; she wanted video instructions, so she searched for some. Video instructions need to be useful and concise, just like paper instructions. When her search results had long introductions that wasted her time, she was left with a poor impression of the whole experience. Consumers prefer video instructions

When you are making a user manual, keep in mind that many modern consumers treat the internet as a key resource, to the exclusion of anything physical. You are providing a free, custom-made resource, but youtube videos and online articles might still be a go-to.

Get to the point.

Two of the three interviewees found it annoyingly difficult to find the information they needed. Time spent searching for the correct language or scanning safety information in search of instructions was time taken away from engaging with the product. One interviewee mentioned that both the manual and online video instructions “took a long time to get to the point.”

A user manual is a practical tool. If a consumer is using it at all, it’s because they need information. The faster they can find exactly what they need, the better their experience. Alternative languages and safety information are definitely important, but they should be very clearly separated out.

Visuals matter.

The tool in this study had many interchangeable parts and a fairly narrow target audience. Every interviewee made at least one visual suggestion that would improve the user experience and marketing potential.

Your visuals should:

  1. Make it very clear what the product components are and what they do.
  2. Showcase the context of your product, so that your target market recognizes how it can help them.
  3. Include all of the information necessary. If time is a factor in a product’s operation, you need to plan your visuals accordingly.

When we talk about visuals, we don’t just mean pictures. Visual elements can be designed into the product itself in the form of labels and symbols, although this doesn’t replace an actual manual. You should also include videos where appropriate, which can be made available through QR codes or a provided URL.

How do I make a user manual that works?

Take pictures, videos, and action images.

Consumers prefer video instructions Gather a full roster of visual components. You should take a picture of each component; if you’re using a tool like that lets you label parts of an image, you can save time by laying the whole setup out in an exploded view, then adding the information you need to this image. Make sure that you take a video for anything that must be moved a certain way, but most of all, keep the videos short. Finally, don’t forget action images; not only do they help model proper use, they also serve as a valuable marketing tool if anyone checks out the manual before they buy the product.

Keep your steps short and sweet.

Your consumers will want to get what they need as fast as possible. That means that when they’re skimming the instructions, the necessary information should jump out at them. Every time you write down a step, think, “Can this step be broken into two parts?” If the answer is yes, you probably want to break it up. You should also avoid lengthy introductions or extra text unless absolutely necessary. You might consider hiring an editor, or even running your text through an AI tool, to make sure you aren’t wasting any time or space.

This is another place where is designed to shine. You make your manual by dragging building blocks into the editor one at a time, which really helps keep things concise and organized.

Last but most important: user manuals need an index.

No matter how clear and concise your instructions are, a user manual is not complete without a well-made table of contents. A good index solves the number one problem every interviewee had: important information is not easy to find.

A good piece of user manual software will generate this for you automatically. accomplishes this in a search-engine friendly way through its text type options. If you want a step to be visible in your table of contents, choose H1, H2, or H3. To avoid cluttering the index with extra information, you can choose the “normal” text type. (Note for those unfamiliar with text formatting or web design: H1 stands for Heading One. Word processors and search engines will read anything you tag H1 as important information, so make sure to use it for titles and major sections. H2 is a subsection, and so on down the line.)

The major sections of your manual should be separated and labeled clearly. Here’s an example for a fictional product:

  1. Widget XP safety and warnings.
  2. How to use your Widget XP.
    • How to turn on Widget XP.
    • How to clean Widget XP.
  3. Widget XP seguridad y advertencia.
  4. Cómo utilizar Widget XP.
    • Cómo encender Widget XP,
    • Cómo limpiar Widget XP.

Notice that every heading is short but descriptive. The safety and warnings section is put first, but the consumer can quickly find the instructions themselves if they just need to check a step. It is clear where one language ends and the next one begins. The above example is great if your user manual is online: when the consumer picks up a new product and hits up Google with the question “How do I turn on my Widget XP,” your instructions are more likely to be on the first page, instead of buried somewhere on the product page of a website.

If the product is complicated, or if a specific function has a lot of steps, you can add a third level to your index:

  1. How to use your Widget XP
    • How to change the tip of Widget XP
      • Unlocking the safety mechanism
      • Removing the tip
      • Inserting a new tip
      • Engaging the safety lock

User manuals make a difference

Product affordances make a difference in how your customers use your product. If you want them to have the best experience, make sure that they become experts at your product as quickly as possible. That can make all the difference.