Avoiding overkill in user guides


I looked over the user’s guide from a flat-screen TV yesterday. Aside from the usual problems with poor grammar and warnings against putting the TV in your bathtub, I noticed something else: they wasted a huge amount of space on the obvious. And I mean, really obvious. In fact, they dedicated two entire pages to the channel and volume buttons on the remote control. As in, how to change the channel and raise and lower the volume. And I’m sure I could find other examples of this flawed approach, since the instructions for a lot of electronics seem to come from the same mold.

Dedicating page after page to incredibly basic functions is a waste of space. It insults all but the most inexperienced users, and the people who truly need that sort of hand-holding are unlikely to ever get that far in the manual — if they read it at all. In the guide that I saw, you would have to get past 36 pages of setup instructions and diagrams before learning how to change the channel. How many super-novice users are going to get that far in their search for answers? My guess is not many at all. Meanwhile, people with more complex inquiries get frustrated by all the irrelevant, obvious things they have to pass though in order to find answers.

My advice is to leave the really basic stuff out entirely. When it comes to things like changing the channel, if you stick to the widely-accepted designs that people have been seeing for years, this is probably a safe bet. But if you must include those instructions, put them in a brief section at the beginning with a title like “Never used a TV before? Learn the basics in 60 seconds.” This will help you serve users of all skill levels more effectively. Similarly, if you have lots of pages that cover essentially the same thing, like an explanation of every possible error message, you should consider only covering the most common ones. If your messages are well-written, they should pretty much speak for themselves.

In general, my favorite approach is to organize your user guide in terms of popular tasks that customers want to perform. This is vastly superior to just labeling all the buttons and telling people what each one does. You can even group these tasks by experience level, different uses of the product, etc. Throughout the process, also consider how much effort it’s going to take for a user to find the relevant area. How many pages do they have to bypass to get there, and would someone with this question even open the manual in the first place? With these considerations in mind, you should be able to make shorter and more focused documentation, which ultimately proves more valuable to customers.