Speak well of your product

Posted on 12 September, 2017 by Paul Walden

Your product may be the best on the market, but if the accompanying documentation is poor, your sales will suffer nonetheless. Think of cheap electronics from China; whilst the product might be just as good as comparable ones, the user manual makes you wonder if the producer simply pasted Chinese into a free online translator and printed the result. Users end up spending hours trying to decipher the manual, and feel stupid when they cannot understand it despite their best efforts. Then they feel stupid again for purchasing the product in the first place. Not a recipe for return customers.

Cheap Asian electronics is an extreme example, but the fact is that all too many businesses treat user manuals as something separate from their products. In doing so, they not only frustrate customer, they also miss out on a great branding opportunity.

A user manual is an integral part of the product itself and should be engineered and tested accordingly. Make it work. You stand to reap the following benefits:

  • Users cruise through the manual and congratulate themselves on understanding the instructions. You have made them feel good about themselves, and this will reflect on your brand.
  • The risk of users injuring themselves using your product is decreased, as is the risk of ensuing lawsuits.
  • The number of product returns is decreased.
  • The number of calls to your helpdesk is minimised.
  • The number of return customers is increased.
  • The number of referred customers is increased.

User manuals should be user- and task-focussed, and written in plain English. Always use an outside-in perspective when writing a manual, taking the mindset of the users as your starting point. What is their prior knowledge? What are their most pressing needs? What are they likely to want to do, and in what order? The answers to such questions will give you the structure of the user manual.

You might find that there are several distinct groups of users. It can then be appropriate to divide the user manual into chapters about basic and advanced use, or even to produce a separate manual with in-depth guidance.

Choice of media is another key point. A traditional printed manual is still the way to go for many products. This doesn’t have to be in the shape of a book, however. Foldout charts or posters are sometimes more practical. Again, keep the user’s needs in focus, and you will find the answer.

If your product is software or equipment that requires the use of a computer, a digital manual offers obvious advantages. Deliver it with your product as a compressed help file or host a help site online, including search functions, screen dumps, videos and links to further reading.

However you decide to present your user manuals, remember that your relationship to the customer didn’t end when they purchased your product and walked out the door. It just started.