User documentation: what is the best choice?

With user documentation, any approach is possible

    ‘User documentation’ is a very general term indeed. What does it mean? Actually, it means quite a lot. And here lies the problem. If the choice for the right mix of user documentation is so overwhelming, how does one make the right choice? This is up for discussion. At any rate, it is important to keep any door open to any form of user documentation. First, there are the user documentation types. Second, there are the output channels for these documentation types. Let’s start with the user documentation types.

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    User documentation types

    Quick start guide

    The quick start guide lends itself for easy access to the most fundamental functions of a device. Also, it is suitable for manufacturers who want to comply with (inter)national regulations without printing a ‘full-blown’ manual. More often than not, a printed version of the main instructions is mandatory. After printing such a quick start guide, a manual could be published online and/or as a PDF file on a DVD.

    Complete manual

    For more in-depth information and instructions, a complete manual is the way to go. For consumer products, the distinction between a quick start guide and manual could work very well. However, for more professional products – such as machines or vehicles or ships or airplanes – only a complete manual or set of manuals can paint the whole picture, going into all necessary details. In almost every case, this implies that the manual has to be printed on paper: user documentation must be accessible under all circumstances, also in situations where there is no Internet or no electricity.

    A manual could have a specific function. Apart from operation manuals, there are also installation manuals, maintenance manuals, dismantling manuals and so on. A user documentation philosophy of a company should answer the question what kind of specific manuals are necessary or desirable.

    Instruction video

    When thinking of user documentation, one probably does not have an instruction video in mind. However, an instruction video contributes greatly to the ‘internalisation’ of instructions, making it a very efficient tool to become familiar with any kind of product. There is a caveat though. An instruction video presupposes a video screen to get access to the video. Such a TV screen or computer screen might not be present everywhere, in which case an instruction video becomes less of an option.

    Online help

    The time that Microsoft added a manual with hundreds of pages to its word processor Microsoft Word is over. All user documentation, that is to say: all instructions and tips, are now part of the Help function of a software application. This Help function could even be located online. An ever increasing capacity of laptops and desktop computers is the main reason for this switch from paper to digital info.

    Output channels for user documentation

    As became apparent when discussing the user documentation types, there are different output channels to inform users.


    Print is still the most popular output channel for publishing instructions. This has to do with the fact that even in developed countries, there might not be a smartphone & tablet penetration rate higher than 50%.


    Online publications are much cheaper for any manufacturer than printed versions of user documentation are. That is why there is a tendency to publish manuals digitally, whether online or as a PDF file on a DVD. However, regulations such as those in the European Union could insist on publishing user and safety instructions on paper. Only then, the accessibility for these instructions can be 100%.

    Offline on a device

    In professional environments, companies could require their employees to carry a tablet or smartphone with them. If so, user documentation could be stored offline on such a device, for example on a memory card belonging to the device. In such cases, printed versions of a manual might not be mandatory.

    Which mix?

    Which mix would be the most appropiate for any given product? That depends on the product of course. It also depends on the way the manufacturer wants to presents itself. If one wants to look ‘modern’, an instruction video with some animation might be the right choice. If one wants to look reliable, the combination of print and online presence might be the way to go.

    The most important thing is to leave all options open when determining the right course of action for any policy on user documentation. Involving an expert would help in this respect, but is not a strict necessity.