Writing any operation manual

A manual for professionals or non-professionals

An operation manual could be a manual for professionals, for example machine operators, train drivers or pilots. An operation manual could also be a manual for non-professionals, in short: for consumers. Are there differences that one should take into account here? Yes, there are. In this article, we name a few.

How to write an operation manual? An answer to this question basically comes down to another question: how much in-depth information does the user expect? A machine operator knows what kind of machine he will be operating. He probably also knows the difference between power, current and voltage. A pilot has to know what a fuse is, otherwise he cannot switch off a permanently flushing toilet.

This means that an operation manual for a professional can and should go much more in-depth than an operation manual for consumers. A consumer needs to be told how to heat food with a combination of wattage and time. This combination is crucial for the right results. A chef of a restaurant does not need to be told which exact trade off there is between heating intensity and time.

So, let’s give an overview of the main differences between the two types of operation manual.

Less knowledge? Go more in-depth

If one does not know what kind of additional functions are part and parcel of a word processor, these functions have to be explained in an operation manual. Take the function of a layout template in a word processor. However, explaining the functionality of an industrial computer to an engineer, would sound very childish to him.

Less experience? More examples

If one does not have that much experience with a consumer product, examples could do the trick. If one wants to take pictures with a new photo camera, the rules to use the correct settings might differ from one situation to the other. So, it would be a good idea to give examples of someone taking a picture of a person nearby, but also of a picture showing a landscape on the horizon.

Less familiarity? Do not use jargon

For an engineer, the term ‘solar array’ needs no explaining. It is a good idea to use professional terms when writing for a professional: this is not ony efficient, but also builds trust on the side of the reader.

However, a ‘solar array’ might be an unknown term for a consumer. For him, it may be better not to use this term and use different terminology instead, like ‘set of solar panels’. Or one could explain the relevance of wiring solar panels together, introducing the term ‘solar array’ along the way. If a technical writer would choose the latter, he’d better not explain too much. After all, an operation manual is meant to operate the solar panels, not to write a book about it.

Less affinity? Motivate more

A journalist who is good at writing news stories may not like taking the accompanying pictures. But his colleague of the editorial staff may want him to do just that. How to motivate such a person to take good or even professional pictures? Shortcuts might come in handy here.

For example, an operation manual could include shortcuts how to take pictures while interviewing a person. It could also include shortcuts how to use a camera instantly when an urgent situation would demand immediate action. Although such situations (like a fire) hopefully never occur in the presence of any user, it is very useful to know how to act. A high quality picture could not only be used for publication, but also by law enforcement officers to track down perpetrators.

It is obvious that a professional does not need these kinds of shortcuts.