Hannah is a semi-recovered perfectionist and longtime subscriber to the squiggly model of success. She spent 11 years learning from the best at brands like HubSpot and Food52 and loves running, cooking, and helping people feel A++ at work. 🤗
A how-to guide is a document that gives step-by-step instructions on how to perform a task. It can be an internal or external document, one page or 100 pages, and published in any field or industry.
If you go to your search history right now, you probably have more than a couple questions starting with "how to…"
And no matter what you want to do—plant a rose garden, bake homemade bread, create an onboarding plan—just like an app, there’s a how-to guide for that.
In fact, there’s even a how-to guide on how to create a how-to guide. That’s where we come in. Because the truth is, not all how-to guides are created equal.
Creating effective how-to guides will help your team complete tasks more efficiently—that’s table stakes. But if you follow a few additional guidelines, you’ll also be able to speed up knowledge transfer at scale, build a culture of documentation, contribute to institutional knowledge, and drive operational excellence.
To make sure your how-to guides hit the mark and make a lasting impact, we’ve rounded up nine steps to create a how-to guide:
Want to create a how-to guide people will actually use? Find out what’s tripping people up, what’s creating friction, what’s unclear, and what’s unknown.
Using knowledge gaps to inform your documentation may sound like a no-brainer, but it’s an easy step to skip.
To avoid making assumptions about what people do and don’t know (and need and don’t need!), you may need to take more time upfront. But in the long run, doing a little digging will help you create a more relevant how-to guide.
What you find may surprise you. For example, you may hear different perspectives from managers and individual contributors. A manager may think people need better instructions to complete routine tasks faster. Someone who’s closer to the work may know that half the team has been using an outdated process with missing information.
2. Understand your target audience
Next, you can start identifying who you’re creating your how-to guide for.
Ask yourself these questions about your target audience to help you better understand how to present the essentials:
Are my primary users beginners?
How much do they already know?
What would help them troubleshoot on their own when they get stuck?
To learn more about your audience, ask everyone what they struggle with and how those challenges impact their day-to-day. From there, you can take a more strategic approach to creating how-to content that directly addresses their pain points.
💡 Tango tip
Check out online forums and other online guides to learn more about your target audience. What questions do people usually ask when using a specific piece of software? How can you answer these questions logically in your guide?
3. Identify processes
Now that you’ve surfaced the biggest knowledge gaps and researched your audience, you can kick off content development.
Remember, you're creating a step-by-step guide, which means you’ll need a solid baseline understanding of the process at hand. If you have unaddressed knowledge gaps of your own, your guide probably won’t be super helpful.
To identify the necessary processes to include in your how-to guide:
Review related how-to guides online to increase your own understanding.
Talk to people who know the process inside and out and ask them for unique insights that will quickly lead to mastery.
You don't need to be a subject matter expert to create a great how-to guide—though expertise doesn’t hurt—you just need to conduct thorough research.
4. Create an outline
Now it's time to structure your how-to guide content in a logical, easy-to-follow way.
The ideal approach will vary based on your topic and audience. Depending on how complex the topic is and the average level of expertise, you might consider dividing your how-to guide into subsections.
Create an outline considering how to best present the information to your team, including these sections:
Frequently asked questions
Keep in mind that the best how-to guides go beyond simply listing process steps. They also explain why each step in the process matters. By contextualizing each instruction, you'll give users a deeper understanding of your methodology.
5. Define actionable steps
With an outline at the ready, you can start defining key steps for your how-to guide.
Create actionable instructions that are simple and easy to understand, for each step. Consider these questions:
What will the reader have to do during this step?
Are there additional resources that would be helpful to include?
Where can I make important callouts?
Make sure the language is simple, without unnecessary complexity. If you do need to use jargon, add a glossary of terms so readers will know what you mean.
Quick tip for when writing a guide: Aim to stay on topic and cover only what's needed to complete the task. At the same time, to avoid confusion—take care not to gloss over necessary context. The best how-to guides give readers exactly what they need to complete each step in a sequence—no more, no less.
Say you're explaining how to create a report to track your brand’s social media performance. Including a quick definition of the metrics you’re pulling and how to manipulate a graph to tell a more meaningful story makes sense. 👍🏽 What can you safely save for another day (and medium)? An aside on how your company approaches social media monitoring and your philosophy on competitor analysis.
6. Add images and examples
Now onto our favorite part: bringing how-to guides to life with visuals.
No matter how simple a process is, visualizing key steps can make action items infinitely more digestible. One way to do this is with images and examples. Add a screenshot for each step, include images and graphs, and list specific examples and scenarios.
Say you want to show a team member how to publish a blog post. First add screenshots showing how to launch your content management system (CMS). Then add a few more explaining how to navigate to the correct section of your site, upload content from Google Docs into your CMS, and preview a post before publishing.
💃 Create how-to guides, in seconds
How many hours have you spent adding images to your tutorials? How many more on resizing, repositioning, and reformatting them?
If "way too many" sounds about right, we've got a tool for you. Tango turns the boring task of documentation into a routine delight.
With one free Chrome extension and a few clicks of a button, you can make how-to guides automatically. With perfectly cropped screenshots. And annotations to boot. 🤩
Want to make it even easier for readers to understand your how-to guide? Sprinkle in suitable tips and resources.
Let's go back to the example of publishing a blog post. If your website tends to crash at will, you may want to include a callout suggesting that they save their posts as they move through the uploading process, instead of waiting until the end.
Potential tips and resources include:
Related how-to guides
Cheat sheets to streamline processes
If you want to expand on a topic to give more background information, you can also add a section with separate resources or link to more context directly in a step.
💡 Tango tip
Make your tips stand out by adding them to tip boxes (like this one!) so you can help readers run through processes in less time.
8. Review and publish
The next step is to review your guide a couple of times.
Before publishing your how-to guide, be sure to:
Read it aloud to find any grammatical errors or sentences that could flow better.
Follow the steps in the guide and see if you can perform the task yourself.
Send it to someone who doesn't know the process and ask them if they can complete it.
Ask teammates for their input.
This should help ensure it's picture-perfect for publishing on the appropriate platform, whether that’s your team's knowledge base, your blog, or a shared workspace with documentation.
9. Distribute and optimize
Last but not least: you need a plan for distributing and optimizing your how-to guide. The best how-to guide in the world won't benefit anyone if it just collects digital dust, so don’t forget to spread the word!
Once your how-to guide is out in the world, send an email to team members who will benefit most. Give a quick overview of what the guide covers and tell them where they can find it. This is also a chance to thank people who contributed! 🌟
From there, your number one goal should be helping people leverage the new information in their existing workflows.
Try these tips to help your team embrace your how-to guide:
Provide adequate training and support.
Share the benefits of the new or updated process—for them and for your company.
Explain why it’s important to implement the new process sooner rather than later.
Lead by example.
Ask for feedback via email or a form!
Address any concerns or objections.
Realign existing training materials to avoid confusion—and add it to new ones.
Make the tutorial easy to resurface when it’s needed most.
Celebrate successes to build momentum and encourage continued adoption.
How-to guide examples
There's a lot of good information here, but what do best-in-class how-to guides actually look like?
The post is a joy to read, contains interesting and relevant information, and is chock-full of visual content. There are also tons of links readers can follow to access additional information on related topics. What’s the cherry on top? The post is well structured, in an easy-to-follow format.
The product-related how-to guide
When it comes to product-related how-to guides, it doesn't get much better than Stripe.
Take their No-Code Quickstart Guide, for example. It helps Stripe users send invoices and get paid—even if they self-identify as allergic to technology.
What makes this guide so great? First, it has an eye-catching title. Most Stripe customers don't want to waste time coding. They want to collect their money—the sooner, the better. Including the word "quickstart" in the guide’s title was a great call.
The post also contains:
Simple, clear steps
Links to other helpful content
💡 Tango tip
Title your how-to guide so it appeals to your target audience. And don't forget about the basics—the best how-to guides are easy to follow, contain imagery, and link out to relevant resources.
Best tips and practices for better how-to guides
Once you’ve followed the steps above, these best practices will help take your how-to guide to the next level:
Keep it simple: Stay on topic, cut out industry jargon, split up steps, or turn a monster how-to guide into multiple how-to guides.
Add annotations: According to recent Tango research, training guides without annotated screenshots are almost universally disliked. Annotate screenshots, images, and charts to make how-to guides easier to understand and more fun to consume.
Serve your end user: Create actionable steps and write in an active voice (with a conversational tone!).
Get feedback: Keep improving your how-to guide by revisiting it regularly and asking for feedback.
Choose the right format: Your how-to guide format matters, so keep ease of use top of mind. For more complex tasks, consider using free software that displays step-by-step instructions in a side-by-side checklist that pops up as people perform a process.(Have we told you about Tango yet? 🙃)
See our "Guide Me" feature in action below:
The bottom line
There’s a lot that goes into making a how-to guide. And there are a lot of reasons to do it right.
Increased efficiency and productivity are just the start. From a company-wide standpoint, more readily available procedural knowledge will drive more documentation, more institutional knowledge, and more operational excellence.
Great how-to guides will also make your life easier as a manager, as you continue to grow and train new team members.
Best of all, you don't have to spend too much time creating them. When you have the right tools, you can build beautiful how-to guides that benefit the whole team in no time.
How-to guides are important because they help with training, productivity, and knowledge transfer. They teach employees how to complete tasks, use tools or software, and learn processes. They also teach them how to get work done in the most productive way possible, which leads to employee development.
What are the elements of a how-to guide?
A how-to guide should include an introduction, content broken up into sections, step-by-step instructions, images, and resources.
What's the difference between a tutorial and a how-to guide?
Tutorials provide step-by-step instructions for someone who has no experience with a topic, and they’re usually more hands-on. How-to guides explain a process to someone who already has knowledge about what needs to be done and guides them through completing it.
How do you make a good guide?
To make a good how-to guide you have to identify the knowledge gap(s), understand and research your audience, create actionable steps, include images and tips, and create a distribution plan to socialize your documentation.
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