You are about to bring out a revolutionary new machine for the world to see. Your engineers have put endless hours into analysis and design. You carefully manufactured and tested each part. The machine is nearly ready to go to markets all over the world.
Now, you need to tell your users how to make the most of your machine and how to do it safely. In other words, you need to create a user manual. The manual needs to be clear and informative – in more than one language.
So, how do you do it?
Ask the right questions
Before you jump into writing, take some time to ask yourself some questions. In our experience, the more questions you ask before you start, the smoother your work goes. Here are some basic questions you might want to consider:
- Where are you shipping your machine? What are the legal requirements for writing user information there? Do you need to translate your manual?
- What skills do you need in your team to complete the manual? Do you need to outsource?
- How much time and resources can you spend on writing, translating and reviewing the manual?
- What tools can you use to create your manual?
- Will you have to update the manual?
Now, that you’ve answered the right questions, you can plan out the work. Make the best of your time and plan for certain things to happen at the same time.
- Have a list of priorities. For example, any safety information is a must-have.
- Plan for creating graphics and writing instructions at the same time.
- Write in chunks and send them for translation right after you finish.
- Plan for your expert on the machine to take part in your project. Even if they are not writing the manual, they are a good source of information.
- Save some time for review. We find that two pairs of eyes make everything better.
Write with the user in mind
When you know all you need to know and have a solid plan, it’s time to finally start writing. The thing about user manuals is that no one wants to read them unless they have to. They are not novels, they are not blog posts. They are a necessity, even though they are very useful at the same time. So, what does that mean for you?
Your readers will open your manual when they need to find out how to do something. Or, very often, when they have a problem. You need to give them what they need, and you need to be efficient about it.
- Write from the user’s perspective. Tell them what to do, not what your machine does.
- Be precise. Include what the user needs to know – and only that.
- Be clear and consistent. Decide how to call things and stick with it.
- Be concise. Don’t make the users go through fancy words to get to the point. Keep it simple.
- Keep everything short. Words, sentences, paragraphs. Within reason, of course.
- Avoid big blocks of text. Use headings, subheadings and lists to help the user find the information quicker.
- Use active voice. Be decisive.
- Write meaningful headings to help your users find the information they are looking for.
Doing something for the first time is always time-consuming and risky. If you are constrained by a fixed deadline, consider outsourcing some or all of the work. When you are writing a user manual, there are at least five sets of skills you need in your team to produce a user manual:
- A subject matter expert. Someone who knows your product and how it works.
- A writer. Someone who can collect the knowledge from the expert, digest it and present it in a way your users will understand. A good writer can present the information in a clear, unambiguous way.
- A translator. If you want to ship your machine to other countries, you need a sworn translator to translate your manual.
- A documentation law expert. To avoid legal implications, you need someone who can ensure your manual meets all the necessary criteria.
- A graphic designer. Most directives require manuals to include graphics.
If you don’t have everyone on your team, now might not be the best time to hire and train a full-time professional. Instead, look for the people who already know how to create graphics, write the content that meets all the standards and translate your manual.
For example, you can use freelancers to create graphics or translate your user manual. Just make sure you can control the quality of the work. Plan some time to review carefully.
You can also outsource the majority of the work. Choose the right people and you’ll end up saving a lot of time and resources.
If you’re not sure which solution is right for you, read more about outsourcing here.
Here at 3di, we can write your manual, create all the graphics and translate the content. We have a database of tried graphic designers and tested translators. While you focus on perfecting your machine, we’ll work on perfecting your manual.