How to build great user documentation

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To make sure your users are as productive and happy with your products as possible, you must build user documentation.

No matter how easy it is to use a piece of software, interactive guides lead users to activation, retention, and success in the long term. When done correctly, documentation can be a growth loop for SaaS businesses.

Think about an Apple device.

When you pick up a new iPhone, shocker, there’s no power brick. That, and there’s no user guide inside the box.

How could it be? There is so much information to fit in that tiny box.

Luckily anybody can read the all-powerful user guide, accessible online, searchable, and structured for any type of device.
The same is true for your product or software. You cannot fit everything in a quick starting guide or the onboarding flow, you should have a public, searchable user guide that contains information on the most essential issues a user might encounter because this empowers them. 

So, what does user documentation mean? Where do you begin? What kind of guide is best for your project?

What is user documentation?

User documentation is a universal term for any content written for end-users to get the most out of your software or product. There are many types of user documentation available, and they cover a broad scope of topics. Still, the most common include user guides, owner manuals, instructions manuals, user manuals, or online help.

Even if there might be overlaps, there is a difference between technical documentation and user docs. The first is written for people who manage the software, and the user guide is written for people that use it.

Regardless of the types of user documentation, it is important to ensure that it is simple to understand and informative so that users can learn how to use your software correctly.

Having good user documentation is essential nowadays because customers prefer to self-service and solve their own problems. 

How do you create user documentation?

It can be challenging to create user documentation, but it can be one of the most important things you do in your business. Providing instructions on how to use the software helps users understand it better and operate it effectively.

It is essential to follow several basic guidelines when writing user documentation.

The documentation should be up-to-date and accurate in the first place. Users won't read it if it's out of date or doesn't accurately describe your product or service in the way you intended. Secondly, describe features and functions in detail. By providing step-by-step instructions along with this description, you will make things easier for your users.

Most importantly, make sure your user documentation is well-designed. It must be easy to read and navigate. It needs to look professional, and it should also flow effortlessly while still being readable and concise. A simple color scheme can help as well.

Third, the user documentation needs to be searchable. This allows a user to search for specific information within your user guide.

Finally, make sure that the tool you are using to create user documentation has SEO features, and it can create a hierarchy that contains sub-topics and sections so that users can easily find the information that they need.

Creating and maintaining great user documentation is just like any other manual in the workplace. If you make it easy for users to navigate, then they will be much more likely to read and follow the directions.

What does user documentation include?

Every user documentation should include shortcuts to the top tasks that any user will take.

Here is an example from Microsoft Office. If you don’t work daily with Excel or PowerPoint, these products may seem complicated to use.

Microsoft always had a user guide where they addressed every question that somebody might have about using Microsoft Office.

But they had a problem.

Their customer satisfaction rating was incredibly low. People weren't happy with the things they found on the website.

So, Microsoft reasoned that they weren't answering the right questions, so they doubled down, wrote even more answers to commonly asked questions, and posted them to this website. What happened?

Actually, their customer satisfaction went down even further.

It’s only now that they ran a top task analysis and they discovered that they were answering or prioritizing the wrong questions on the site.

People couldn't find the answers that they needed. The vast majority of people were only interested in the same, small handful of questions. The moment those were prioritized, the customer satisfaction rating went up.

User documentation should always be based on a task that the user needs to complete. Here is a structure that can get you started:

  1. Start with a quick start guide
  2. Describe the setup instructions or prerequisites
  3. Write how to use each feature
  4. Address any FAQ
  5. Make it easy for users to contact you

To create user documentation you also need to use the right tools. Some people can get started writing a Word document, export it to a PDF and that can be enough.

On the other hand, that's not the best experience for most users. I would recommend to build a user documentation website, because most of the times you will end up having to publish it online.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is user documentation?
Expand FAQ
User documentation is any content written for end-users to help them get the most out of a software or product. Common forms of user documentation include user guides, owner manuals, instructions manuals, user manuals, or online help. Good user documentation is simple to understand, informative, and up-to-date.
What is the difference between technical documentation and user documentation?
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Technical documentation is written for those who manage the software while user documentation is written for the people who use it.
Why is having good user documentation essential?
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Good user documentation is essential because customers nowadays prefer to self-service and solve their own problems. It helps users understand the product better and operate it effectively.
What guidelines need to be followed when creating user documentation?
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When creating user documentation, it should be up-to-date, accurate, and describe features and functions in detail with step-by-step instructions. It should be well-designed, easy to read and navigate, searchable, and made with a tool that has SEO features. It must look professional and be concise with a simple color scheme.
What should be included in every user documentation?
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Every user documentation should include shortcuts to the top tasks users will take, a quick start guide, setup instructions or prerequisites, descriptions of how to use each feature, frequently asked questions, and easy ways for users to contact you. Using the right tools is also essential while creating user documentation.

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