A user manual is a guide that helps customers and internal teams learn how to use a product and its features, troubleshoot common issues, and find the knowledge they need to get unstuck.
Nobody wakes up in the morning and thinks, "Yes! I get to make a user manual today!"
You’re probably one of the people who doesn’t relish the manual creation process—and for good reason. You need to set aside who-knows-how-much time to write step-by-step instructions, take screenshots, figure out how to format everything, and potentially build out your manual in another program.
Meanwhile, you still have a wall of back-to-back meetings and more urgent, unfinished projects to look forward to.
On the upside, you know a great user manual can help your team and your customers serve themselves, experience less frustration, make fewer mistakes, and get on with their day.
To recap: user manuals = good. The stress that comes with making them = not so good.
To minimize that stress as much as possible, we’re going to go over nine steps to help you create engaging user manuals that won’t take you forever to create—and will actually get used.
1. Define your audience
Your audience reigns supreme for any user guide. 👑
Answering the following questions about your audience can help you decide what details to include:
Who are the people you want to help?
Why are they likely to seek out your user manual?
What background knowledge do they have?
If you sell enterprise marketing software, your target buyers probably already understand common marketing-related acronyms like TOFU, UGC, and CTA (you get the idea!).
But if your solution may be used by people with varying levels of marketing experience, a glossary can go a long way towards preventing people from needing to Google their way through your guide.
Who else stands to benefit from an engaging user manual? Your internal team—both existing and new.
Tenured teammates may turn to your product user manual to enhance their own expertise on your software or tool, refresh their memory on certain features, and use it as a resource to help customers get unstuck.
New hires may lean on your user manual to do their own product discovery, minimize repetitive questions, and surface knowledge to do their jobs better.
2. Build an outline for your user manual
Outlines are how you can “measure twice, cut once” before reaching what feels like the point of no return. 🧵
A general outline can include:
A brief intro explaining what your guide will go over
A table of contents to help people jump straight to the answers they need
A list of topics and descriptive section headers for each topic
A list of subtopics or common issues to write about in each section
Areas to add callouts, warnings, or other important information
Opportunities to incorporate visuals and rich media
An FAQ section based on your research in step two
A conclusion calling out the next steps and related resources
Establishing a structure upfront can help ensure you tackle topics in a logical order. You can also use it to get early feedback from your team and improve your first iteration.
Tip: Create a template for your user manual (and the how-to guides within it!) to save your process pros from starting from scratch in the future. It'll also help standardize your team’s user manuals so people can easily find what they need to know, ASAP.
3. Surface knowledge gaps and source curated insights to level up your guide
You could get started on writing your user manual at this point. Or, you could do some digging to surface knowledge gaps that are slowing people down.
Our recommendation? Do the initial legwork to help you understand the people you’re serving—and help you prioritize which topics to work on first.
Think about FAQs for you and your teammates. Is your customer support team constantly answering the same questions? Do new teammates ask you to share your screen to help them get unblocked on similar subjects? Does your marketing team get stuck on the same part of a particular process or when using a specific part of your tool? Those are usually good places to start when you’re thinking about what ground to cover.
💡 Tango Tip
Use a tool like Tango (with Automagic FAQs!) to proactively surface answers to common questions.
You may also find some unexpected gems during your research. 💎 Aka the tips and time-saving tricks that delight your power users.
While procedural knowledge is typically stored separately from the insights from about how to perform those processes at an elite level, you can set your readers up for success by housing the two together (and delivering them in the flow of work!).
4. Create your content and optimize for searchability
With your early research done and your outline ready, writing your user guide should be smooth sailing from here. ⛵
Here are some best practices to keep in mind when writing your user manual:
Write as simply as possible. Leave out overly technical jargon, flowery descriptions, and long sentences.
List one step at a time. Make your instructions easy to understand. Don't complicate things by adding substeps or combining multiple tasks into one step.
Use descriptive and accurate tags, categories, and titles. This can help you support search within a guide and larger databases.
For digital manuals, incorporate an interactive table of contents and a search function. Help people find exactly what they need without breaking flow.
💡 Tango Tip
Already using Tango? Encourage your users to download the free Tango Chrome Extension.
When you visit a website or SaaS tool and there’s a Tango waiting in the wings to make work easier, the Tango extension will light up to let you know Guidance is available.
Once you’re done with your draft, ask yourself, "Can my audience get this process done without interrupting someone else for answers or constantly switching tabs to find the answers they need to do their job?” If your answer is anything other than “yes,” you may need to take another pass—or try implementing a tool that enables better self service.
5. Incorporate annotated screenshots, diagrams, and other rich media
Have you ever seen a guide say “click here,” only to provide no context where “here” is?
A simple visual can remove the guesswork and show people where they should go next. It can also cut down on text so people can get the answers they need right away.
Screenshots, diagrams, and other rich media can add context that would take too many words to describe with text alone. To make your visuals even more valuable, add annotations to point to exactly what people need to look at.
In an ideal world, you’d convert the how-to sections within your user manual into interactive, on-screen walkthroughs that surface the answers people need, when and where they need them. Instead of switching tabs to refer to the steps, you’d be able to show your team and customers exactly what to do and what to click.
Spoiler: There’s a tool for that. 😁
💡 Let’s Tango: Create user manuals, in seconds
Wouldn’t it be great if your user manual would write itself? While we haven’t figured that out just yet, there is a tool that will take you most of the way there.
Just download Tango’s free Chrome Extension, run through your process the way you normally would, and invite your team to experience Guidance.
6. Test and seek out initial feedback before publishing
Now’s the time to put yourself in your user’s shoes. 👟
Go through each of the steps yourself to check for accuracy. Once you’ve done a run-through, you can pass it along to your team and customers to get their unfiltered feedback.
The people who use your product every day can offer perspectives and nuances you might’ve missed. They can also point out extra fluff you can cut and clarify instructions that are confusing to follow.
Seeking feedback from people who are completely new to your processes and/or product is equally smart. If one person is confused, there’s a good chance others will run into the same stumbling block!
7. Establish a maintenance plan
If there’s a step that’s tempting to skip right over, it’s this one. And if there’s a step that’s important not to skip, it’s this one.
Without a maintenance plan, how do you plan to maintain the user guide you’ve put so much thought into?
It can be as simple as setting aside time once a quarter and creating a checklist of sections to revisit. You can also schedule user manual updates to align with upcoming feature updates.
Of course, there’s no need to wait until your next scheduled update if you notice outdated sections. Sporadic updates will crop up, but a formal maintenance plan will help future-proof your guide and keep it from going stale.
8. Publish and share with your users
When your user guide is finally done and ready for the world to see, publish it in a place where people will find it.
That might be in your knowledge base (if it’s internal), or in your help center (if it’s external). You can also link to your user guide directly on your product page so people can find it with ease.
Once you publish it, let people know where it is! For internal teams, send a quick email or note explaining how the guide can support their goals and everyday work.
For customers, add a note to your onboarding communications explaining how they can use your manual to address common feedback or frustrations with the product and where they can find it.
9. Optimize based on feedback
The party doesn’t stop after you hit “publish.” 🎉
With your maintenance plan in hand and the right tools in place, optimization doesn’t need to be as time-consuming as it may seem.
Knowledge sharing tools like Tango make it easy for users to leave feedback directly in an interactive walkthrough, while they’re using it to run through a process. This allows people who are learning to give feedback to people who are teaching and training—while their observations and suggestions are fresh in their minds. Then, you can use their insights to continually improve your guide from the bottom up.
Depending on the platform you’re using to host your user guide, you can also keep tabs on an analytics dashboard to understand how people are using it, where they’re getting stuck, and where they’re finding success.
Pro tip: Use feedback and analytics in tandem to decide which updates to prioritize.
Analytics: You find that lots of people drop off from your guide after a specific step.
Team insight: After talking to your customer support team, you learn that they get a lot of support tickets related to that step.
Next steps: Revisit and refresh that set of instructions to address questions from your team and incorporate insights from subject matter experts.
If you don’t have platform-specific analytics, you can also look for other indicators for your user manuals’ performance, like the:
Number of support tickets or calls that the user manual covers.
Change in positive or negative reviews.
Common questions asked in support forums (and the number of comments).
Frequency of meetings, screen share requests, and other interruptions between people on your internal team.
Amount of time your team internally spends on tasks covered in the user manual.
Tips for creating best-in-class user manuals
Want to know a not-so-secret secret? When people want answers, they want them FAST. 🏇
Making user guides easy to understand can help your team and customers stay focused on what they’re working on. Needless to say, it’s tricky to stay in focus mode when you can’t find what you need (or understand what should be straightforward instructions).
Here are a few tips you can follow to make your user manuals as helpful as possible:
Find a tool that makes it easier and faster to capture your processes—in ways that your learners like to learn.
Write like you’re talking to a friend with low context of your product or process.
Get to the solution fast by being specific, succinct, and leaving out unnecessary steps or information.
Consider breaking down complex steps into different sections or topics for simplicity.
Use formatting like bulleted lists, bolding, and even emojis to help people digest your information faster.
Incorporate visuals, annotated screenshots, and other rich media to help people understand complex processes (and save them from blocks of text).
Add a glossary for necessary technical terms and symbols at the beginning of the guide so everyone knows what they mean, regardless of their level of expertise.
Create descriptive titles, headers, tags, categories, and tables of contents to make it easy for anyone to find your guide in your database and find the right answers, at the right time, in the right place.
Test for accessibility on different devices, operating systems, and assistive technology.
Include links to relevant resources and anticipate what people may need help with next.
Give people an easy way to share their feedback while they work so you can continue improving your guide.
Leverage analytics to see who’s using your guide, how often, and how successfully.
Benefits to expect from user-centric user manuals
You, your team, and your customers can stand to gain a lot from user-centric user manuals. If you give users what they need to learn while they work, you can enable them to help themselves and help everyone get more work done, faster.
Learn more about the benefits you can expect when your team and customers have high quality user manuals at their fingertips:
Simplified customer and team onboarding and less friction when they’re learning about your product or processes for the first time.
More customer self service, less confusion, fewer support requests, and increased customer satisfaction.
Empowered sales reps who can quickly walk through features and refresh their memories on the job.
More productive support teams who can easily share resources with customers (rather than screen sharing or typing out steps for each request).
Increased efficiency with internal teams who can quickly troubleshoot issues on their own and without interrupting others.
Standardized usage to avoid safety, security, or privacy issues as a result of misuse.
Surfaced tips and tricks that will help all users use products to their full potential.
Fewer meetings, one-off-questions, and screen share requests that take everyone out of the flow of work.
Types of user manuals
User manuals are for—you guessed it—users. Lots of guides can fall under this category, including training and product manuals. Others may go by a different name but essentially mean the same thing (like user guides or user instructions).
Below are a few common examples of user manuals:
Product manuals (sometimes called instruction manuals) include instructions for using different product features. These can be synonymous with user guides, but product manuals are generally associated with physical products while user guides are for non-physical products (like software).
Service manuals include instructions geared towards maintenance, repairs, and troubleshooting common issues with products. They’re most commonly used for physical products (like cars).
Training manuals include instructions for different tasks for a specific job. A training manual can include instructions for using software and other products needed to perform their job.
Operation manuals cover instructions for day-to-day tasks a person would complete at their job. Although they can be similar to training manuals, operation manuals are focused on helping people on the job (rather than training them on new topics for the first time).
Real-life examples of user manuals
It’s one thing to talk about great user manuals, and it’s another to create one. Luckily, we rounded up a couple user manual examples you can use for inspiration.
Our Team Workspaces guide covers lots of topics to help people collaborate in shared Workspaces. We answer common questions for topics like managing users and working between different Workspaces.
Notion’s Reference section of their Help Center makes it easy for users to find the help they need for their different features. If people want more in-depth resources, they can go to their Learn section for more built-out guides or check out Notion Academy.
The bottom line
What does your team’s workday look like without a great user manual—especially if they’re in Customer Support or IT? A whirlwind of customer support tickets, a very sad desk lunch, and too many screen share requests from new hires to count. But with user manuals? Fewer interruptions and more time to (finally) get stuff done.
Wish it were easy to speed up (and level up) all of your process documentation? It can be.
Tools like Tango take care of the tedious parts (read: screenshotting and formatting) so you can get to the valuable parts (read: unblocking customers and teammates).
When everyone has what they need to succeed, it’s a lot easier to hit your goals, help others hit theirs, and feel accomplished every day. 💃