1 User Manuals

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An easy-to-use and effective user manual is a key element of the convivial tool.

Note that the tool is more than the physical or digital object in itself. The tool includes the network of accompanying support systems, including the user manual, after-sales service and technical support such as the help desk.

A convivial tool should be designed for intuitive use, with the goal of making the user manual unnecessary, to the extent possible. But since a totally intuitive tool is in most cases impossible to achieve, the user manual should be carefully designed to provide a maximum of support to the user.

The user manual is also a general concept that can be extended beyond the domain of technical tools. Examples are books such as Bursztyn’s "User’s Guide to the Body" and Fuller’s "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth". More generally, the user manual is related to the much wider field of "how-to books." (Note that the Wikipedia article on "how-to" now puts more emphasis on how-to websites than on how-to books.)

General Principles of User Manuals

In Wikipedia the entry for "User Manual" redirects to "User Guide." This short article (it is a stub) gives the following definition:

    A user guide, also commonly known as a manual, is a technical communication document intended to give assistance to people using a particular system.

Note that the term "technical communication" in this definition refers to a separate Wikipedia article, which primarily deals with technical writing. The user guide is usually written by a technical writer, although it could be written by other technical staff, such as programmers or product or project mangers.

The user guide should be written in language adapted to the intended audience, with jargon either kept to a minimum or thoroughly explained. The text of the user guide should have high readability.

User guides are commonly associated with electronic goods, computer hardware and software. Most such user guides contain both written text and associated images. User guides for computer hardware often include clear, simplified diagrams. User guides for computer applications may include screenshots of how the program looks at the different steps of use.

Wikipedia devotes a special article to user guides for computer and video games.

User guides for electronic products are now often delivered as soft-copy on a CD (typically in the form of a pdf file), rather than as a hard-copy printed booklet.

Perceptions of User Manuals

One of Murphy’s Laws states: "When all else fails, read the instructions."

A variation on this theme is "RTFM", which stands for "Read The Freaking (or another term of one’s choice) Manual." Often the information one needs is in the manual, but the dense inhospitable text discourages one from trying to go through page by page in search of the needed information. This is well summed up on a popular blogsite, under the heading "Why marketing should make the user manuals", as follows:

    Creating fabulous learning materials might be a far better use of the budget than creating fabulous ads and brochures. If traditional advertising and marketing is becoming less and less effective, why not move all that talent (designers, artists, copywriters, other "creatives") from before the sale to after the sale? We keep wondering why users won’t RTFM, but just look at our FMs! Nice brochures are printed on that coated silky paper that begs to be touched, while the manual is printed on scratchy office-grade paper. Even just that one change - making the user manual as touchable as the marketing material - would be a good start.

The same blogsite also presents an interesting related article entitled: "The best user manuals ever."

Producing User Manuals

As noted above, the user manual is often written by a professional technical writer.

On-line resources giving advice on the writing and laying-out of user manuals include the following:

Technical Writing - Online User Guides Tutorial

A Visual Guide to Document Design and Layout

How to Publish a Great User Manual

Evaluating User Manuals

The only criteria in widespread use for the evaluation of user manuals seems to be readability. Readability can be assessed precisely with a "readability survey," or roughly with a "readability test."

A readability survey is a statistical survey of the ability of people to read given passages of text that are written, formatted and layed-out in a variety of styles.

A readability test, also known as a readability formula, is a protocol for roughly evaluating the readability of text. It generates a score based on characteristics such as statistical average word length, which is a rough indicator of semantic difficulty, and sentence length, which is a rough indicator of syntactic complexity.

Finding existing User Manuals

Many websites specialise in providing downloads of existing user manuals, such as the following: