Very rarely is a device or an app so easy to use that the user doesn’t even have to glance at the user guide. Usually, people refer to the user guide when they have a problem, in which case they are already frustrated with the device or app. Therefore, the user guide needs to be easy to read and concise, to help the user read it quickly and find the needed information easily. A user guide is not the place for prose.

When writing, think carefully what is the information that the user needs. There’s no demand for long introductions, unless you’re writing about something that is completely new and previously unknown to the user. If the user is familiar with the matter at hand and the heading of the task is easy to comprehend, the user doesn’t need any introductory texts, and you can go straight to the instruction. When explaining a new technology or feature, don’t use too many words; just explain the subject shortly and use terms that the user understands. The user is hardly interested in reading long descriptions in the user guide. Instead, the user wants to know how to use the new feature and what’s the benefit of using it.

When writing an instruction, teach the user the easiest and most logical way of doing the task. Don’t write: “To take a photo, select Menu > Camera > New” if also this is valid: “To take a photo, press the camera key”. Do not give alternative ways to accomplish the task, even if those existed. They only confuse the user, make learning difficult, and give an impression that the device is difficult to use.

The text in a user guide must be as short as possible. Remove all unnecessary info. For example, how does the user benefit from the information that the Software version field is read-only: ”The software version is marked in the Software version read-only field”? The user will notice that when starting to write something in the field – which, too, is a very unlikely scenario. The entire sentence is unnecessary for the user, as being a literate person, the user is able to comprehend the purpose of the field just by reading the name of the field on the screen.

Especially if you’re writing re-usable text, leave all insignificant details out, as they are very likely to change from one product or software version to another. Experience has proven that when you’ve written “Drag the green bar to the left”, in the next software version the bar is blue. Or when you’ve told the user that the calendar alarm sounds 30 minutes prior to the event, in a few months’ time it sounds 10 minutes prior. Of course, you need to remember that even when writing re-usable text, the most important guideline for writers is to write text that is easy to understand. Sometimes you just have to tell the colour of the bar to help the user find it on the device screen.

It is often unnecessary to describe what is on the device screen, since the user can see what is in front of their eyes. There is no need to repeat the various parts of the screen in the user guide, unless there’s something unintuitive on the screen or there’s something else that you want to draw the user’s attention to. For example, if all the command buttons are on the top left corner of the screen, but one button is illogically placed on the lower right corner, it is good to tell where the button is to avoid the user wasting time and getting frustrated trying to locate it.

Leave all the self-evident things out. Often the result of a task is self-evident and thus unnecessary to state: “To save the note, select Menu > Save. The note is saved on your device.” The golden rule to being concise is: do not underestimate the intelligence of the user.

– Ulla

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