What is User Documentation?
No matter how intuitive a product or service is, the end-users will always require some assistance. Assuming that your customers will figure it out on their own is a recipe for disaster. To that end, when selling any product – irrespective of the learning curve – companies must include user documentation.
With the help of user documentation, businesses can deliver a great customer experience, cut down on customer care costs, and ensure that the end-users get the complete value out of your product or service.
But what exactly is it?
In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know about user documentation, its types, and how to create one successfully. If you're interested in learning via video, then watch below. Otherwise, skip ahead.
Let’s get started.
What is User Documentation?
User documentation, also known as end-user documentation, is any form of documentation intended for the end-user of a product or a service. The purpose of this documentation is to guide the users on how to properly install, use, and/or troubleshoot a product.
We’ve all read some form of user documentation at some point in our lives. They usually come with products in the form of user manuals/guides that have a bit of a learning curve, such as gadgets, software applications, and appliances, among other things.
Without this documentation, an average user might not get the full value out of the product. This, in turn, could result in unhappy customers and high customer care costs and churn rates.
What’s more – user documentation comes in all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in physical, paper form. It can also be a PDF file, an infographic, or even a collection of web pages with helpful resources, like so:
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
To summarize – user documentation is anything that prevents the end-user from directly reaching out to your customer service department regarding any confusion about your product.
If you're interested in learning how to create great user documentation, then check out our technical writing certifications to help you do just that.
The Different Types of User Documentation
As mentioned earlier, user documentation comes in various shapes and forms.
However, there is a simple way to categorize them on the basis of the problems they solve.
Keeping that angle in mind, user documentation can be classified into the following types:
Getting started with certain products, like enterprise software applications, gadgets, fixtures, etc., requires some level of technical expertise.
To that end, manufacturers provide such products with comprehensive installation or setup guides, including detailed, step-by-step instructions to make the overall process user-friendly.
With the help of these tutorials, businesses ensure that the end-users don’t mess up when starting their journeys with their products.
Comprehensive User Manual
This refers to the complete, in-depth user guide that comes with any product with even the slightest learning curve for any product.
It includes everything, from an instruction manual on how to install a product, to troubleshooting steps, and a breakdown of the user interface and/or the various features in between.
Most of the time, whenever someone talks about user documentation, they’re referring to these user manuals.
Another common type of user documentation is reference guides.
These user documents come with software products, and are intended for more experienced end-users.
A reference document sheds light on the functionality of any one aspect or feature of a product. That way, if any user, who already knows a great deal about the product at hand, can get quick information about certain features without having to skim through the entire user manual.
The Distinction Between User Documentation and Technical Documentation
Technical documentation encompasses every form of technical writing that helps shed light on any aspect of a product.
But how is it different from user documentation?
Some may argue that there aren’t any differences between the two, and that the only point of difference is that user documentation comes under the broad umbrella of technical documentation.
However, for simplicity’s sake, and to ensure that you don’t confuse both, user documentation is meant for the end-user, whereas technical documentation is meant for everyone else.
Take a software product as an example. Its technical documentation could include the following:
- Requirements Documentation – sheds light on what is required from the product, including the basic and advanced features, functionality, resources, and goals, among other things. This is meant for the software development teams and testers.
- Architecture/Design Documentation – these sketch out the overall design of the software product and describe the design principles for the development teams.
- Process Documentation – these break down the product journey in properly structured formats for the product team.
- Market Strategy – this is created by the product marketing team to provide a north-star and a game plan to bring a new product to the market.
All of the aforementioned types of documentation have one thing in common – none of them are meant for the end-user.
That’s where user documentation comes in. It’s not meant for the technical, marketing, and other strategic stakeholders directly involved with the product, but rather for the people who will actually use it.
For that reason, naturally, user documentation requires a different “level” of language (more on this later).
What Makes a User Documentation Great?
Crafting great user documentation is tricky.
There are a lot of elements that go into accomplishing the ultimate goal of helping users figure out an otherwise complicated process.
1. Simple Language
When it comes to any form of technical writing, perhaps the most important thing is the simplicity of language.
This is especially true for documentation targeted at end-users, who don’t have much technical knowledge.
There’s no room for jargon. Even the most advanced features should be broken down in the simplest way possible to effectively explain its functionality and how to get the most out of it.
2. A Good Flow
The second most crucial element of all successful user documentation is having a logical flow (or outline, if you will).
The goal is to deliver a coherent experience to your users in a way that makes sense, by solving one problem at a time.
For instance, if you’re selling an enterprise software, you wouldn’t want to start with the advanced features right off the bat.
Instead, you’d want to start off by helping them get set up, break down the user interface, and then take them through the individual features and what they can accomplish with them.
3. Use of Visuals
The best user documentation has visuals.
Visuals can help simplify a complicated process and make it easier to understand. To that end, in addition to written instructions of a process, it’s highly recommended that you also show the users how it’s down.
Examples of visuals can include illustrations, screenshots, GIFs, or even short tutorial videos.
All the digital documentation should be accessible to everyone. This includes optimizing your content in a way that it shows up properly on both desktop and mobile devices, and can be communicated to users who are blind or deaf.
For example, if you have your user documentation on a website, you might want to include an option that allows visually-impaired users to listen to the instructions.
Similarly, for those with audio impairment, ensure that the written content is clearly visible.
5. More Resources
Finally, your user documentation should include additional resources that the user might find useful.
Any sort of link that leads to online help or contact details that get them in touch with a support team works.
These details should be included throughout the documentation, or towards the end of the document.
A Simple Framework for Creating Effective User Documentation
Now that you know what elements go into making any user documentation successful, we’re now going to go through the step-by-step process of crafting one.
Let’s jump in:
- Determine the Audience and the Problems – first and foremost, you need to determine who your audience is and their level of understanding. In addition, you need to figure out what potential problems they might face when using your product.
- Figure Out the Format – based on the accessibility of your audience, you need to figure out what format you’re going to use for the documentation. A good format is to pool all the resources into a knowledge base (51% of customers prefer online technical support).
- Create a Solid Outline – this goes back to having that logical flow. A good tip is to start off with a rough table of contents, so that you don’t miss out on anything important.
- Finalize the Design – finally, decide on a compelling design that also helps you convey your thoughts in the easiest way possible.
- Start Solving One Problem at a Time – once you’ve decided on an outline and your design, it’s time to craft the documentation. Craft every sentence based on the reading level of your users, incorporate visuals, throw in some FAQs, and start solving their problems.
Finally, edit away your user documentation for any potential errors.
Companies that invest in effective user documentation tend to experience higher customer retention, higher success rates, and longer customer lifecycles.
However, creating one isn’t as simple as typing up a few step-by-step instructions. It entails:
- Putting yourself in the shoes of your end-users
- Figuring out an appropriate level of language for your audience
- Deciding what formats and channels would be best to reach your end-users
And that’s just the surface. Those three things themselves entail a lot.
Finally, companies also need to consistently update and improve their documentation based on the journeys of their products.
All things considered, without decent user documentation, your product is essentially incomplete.
If you are new to technical writing and are looking to break in, we recommend taking our Technical Writing Certification Course, where you will learn fundamentals of being a technical writer, how to dominate technical writer interviews, and how to stand out as a technical writing candidate.
Josh is the founder of Technical Writer HQ and Squibler, a writing software. He is considered one of the top product influencers in the world by Product School and one of the top technical writers. He has been writing software tutorials, manuals, handbooks, and white papers for over eight years. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here.