How to Write a Best-in-Class User Guide for Software [Examples]
How to Write a Best-in-Class User Guide for Software [Examples]
May 23, 2022
May 23, 2022
Tango Co-Founder & President
Dan is an ex-B2B SaaS investor, Forbes 30 Under 30 winner, and big fan of Harvard Business School. We’re pretty glad he pivoted to start Tango. 🧡 While he doesn’t eat carbs, we forgive him because he gives a damn (especially about people).
An excellent user guide navigates customers across a product and shows them how to get their job done in the quickest way possible. It answers loads of users' how-to questions in seconds and delivers a great customer experience.
A good user guide also helps reduce the burden on your customer support team.
This article is a step-by-step guide for you to create killer user documentation. We've compiled best practices from Google, Ahrefs, Lemlist, and other well-known companies so you can replicate their strategies and provide your customers with first-class customer support.
Let's dive in!
What is a software user guide?
A software user guide (also known as a user manual, user documentation, end-user guide, etc.) is a step-by-step set of instructions on using your product and is accessible 24/7 for self-help.
Think of it as a knowledge base that unravels the usage of every feature across your product.
Google Analytics User Guide
Why is it important to create user documentation?
A product company without user documentation is like IKEA furniture without assembly instructions. You can probably guess how to assemble a chair, but the odds are you will miss some details or spend hours figuring out where to put some parts instead of spending 10 minutes.
There are many reasons why businesses should create end-user manuals.
Let’s look at the three most essential:
Excellent customer experience
Excellent customer experience is about creating a frictionless product and providing top-notch customer support around using the product that includes live chat, use cases, and well-structured product documentation. Altogether, this drastically impacts customer satisfaction and user stickiness.
The reason is simple — the faster customers can figure out what to do across your product and how to derive value from it, the better their experience will be.
Creating a user manual is especially important for self-service or complex products so that users can address their questions and get comprehensive answers while they work.
With solid user-guides in place, the customer support team will require fewer employees to deliver quality customer service so that they can focus on more complex issues rather than wasting time on basic usability questions.
Imagine all the questions new signups have regarding a typical product. If they address them all to support chat, customer support specialists won’t be able to cope with the avalanche of incoming messages.
However, if you cover all features with guidelines, it will take seconds to provide users with the needed information by simply redirecting them to specific user guide chapters.
Writing a user manual: best practices
When writing end-user manuals, we must follow a concrete set of rules to make it practical and intuitive to navigate for new and existing customers.
User documentation should be well-structured, illustrated with different visuals, and easy to read.
Here’s how to create a user guide your customers will admire (and actually use!).
Use simple language when crafting user documentation, no matter how complex your product is. Avoid jargon and industry buzzwords your customers may not understand, and use a conversational, encouraging, and friendly tone of voice.
A common mistake internal product experts make is using technical language that makes documentation challenging to understand and follow for a less savvy audience.
Your product and engineering teams know your product so well that they make assumptions about how easy things are, while beginners, looking at it with fresh eyes, often need simple explanations for things that might seem obvious but aren’t.
In short, your user documentation has to be understandable, even for newbies.
For instance, SurferSEO uses simple vocabulary to explain a complex entity like AI Score for content quality.
SurferSEO user documentation
Having an easy-to-follow Format is key for ensuring everybody can grasp the idea within the first few seconds.
To achieve that simplicity, use the following recommendations:
Avoid long blocks of text. Don’t write paragraphs longer than 2-3 sentences
Add contextual visualizations after each described step in the manual (annotated screenshots, charts, simplified user interface, videos, etc.)
Insert bulleted lists
Use bold text formatting to direct the user’s attention to critical parts
Avoid italic font because it’s difficult to read quickly
Use headlines to separate information but keep the sequence of the narration
Insert emojis to make your text sound friendly and welcoming 😁
Userpilot user guide formatting
Not only do screen recordings or annotated screenshots complement the text, but they also make the text easier to follow and provide users with comprehensive guidance to complete a particular task.
Embed visuals to show your customers how the product works.
Lemlist end-user documentation
When creating a user guide for software, avoid the fluff and unnecessary details. Get to the point with the very first sentence.
Once you finish writing a chapter of the user manual, go over each section (heading) as a stand-alone piece of content and ask yourself: is this content answering the expectations set by the article title?
Table of Contents
Treat your user guide as a book with Title, Chapters, and Subchapter headings.
Put every piece of content in a contextual, hierarchical order so users can seamlessly move from one part to another to solve their problem.
Or you can apply Serpstat’s approach and create a content order or arrangement that mirrors the product Navigation Menu.
Serpstat user guide
Collect user feedback
If you want to understand whether you have created a decent user guide, allow your customers to provide feedback on each chapter.
To do so, incorporate the feedback widget into the user documentation and collect user feedback in real-time.
This will help you identify content gaps that need to be covered.
You can go even further and trigger a support chat if the customer hasn’t found your user guide satisfying. See how Lemlist tied up the click on the negative emoji with a live support chat. What amazing customer care!
Lemlist feedback widget
Give more contextual help
Aim to create only one piece to cover each specific topic so user documentation is crystal clear and well-organized. However, we must also make sure customers can fulfill their needs and get the job done by using that guidance which might require additional articles and resources.
So how do we kill two birds with one stone?
Simply embed links in the body of the user guide to other helpful articles, tutorials, etc., that address and complement the product or troubleshooting area.
Ahrefs end-user manual
How to create the best user guide: a step-by-step breakdown
Now that you've learned best practices for writing an excellent user guide, let's jump into how to establish your first set of user documentation.
Step 1: Define the audience
Know your readers and tailor your language and tone of voice to them.
For instance, when developing a solution, let’s say a marketing automation tool for non-technical customers, we must write user instructions as simple as possible to make every complex part of the product easy to understand and use.
Thus, user documentation becomes a kind of guiding star for product usage for every marketer with a different level of experience.
On the other hand, when building a product for a techy audience such as senior developers or engineers, your user documentation may contain technical language that you wouldn’t use for a less tech-savvy audience. And that’s totally fine.
Step 2: Craft the outline
Here is where we see a trap that many people fall into. They assume it’s a piece of cake to write a user guide when they know their product in-and-out. However, it’s often the opposite, and you will likely find yourself confused when you start to put words on paper if you haven’t prepared a decent structure.
To prevent this, make a draft outline of your future user guide. Start with creating a structured skeleton, following the logical flow of the narrative:
Define what content you should craft for the Get Started part
The Get Started section of an instruction manual surfaces the first steps users have to perform to actually get started using software and derive the first value out of it. Typically, that part includes tutorials on how to create an account, how to create the first project, etc.
The Get Started section of technical documentation, Tango
Determine what the most frequent questions are regarding each product's features
Decide what your user guide will look like — a block scheme, a table of contents, or duplicating the navigation menu of the product
Once you finish, begin writing with the Get Started chapter and then prioritize topics based on the frequency of customer support requests.
Step 3: Create graphics
Explain your written instructions with annotated screenshots or video tutorials — one picture for each step. Add red arrows, speech balloons, or a circle to capture users' attention and help them replicate necessary steps faster.
A well-illustrated user guide engages customers and doesn't feel dull and intimidating.
You can use Loom for screen recordings or you can go for Tango and its automatic screen and mouse capturing when you walk through your process (e.g., while you’re explaining how to use a particular feature).