User support documentation is crucial for the success of every business. It helps form the very first impression of your product and often users won’t venture beyond that. This is why user documentation needs to be approached responsibly and with care. I have decided to share with you best practices for user support documentation which I’ve learned through  experience. Here are the top nine characteristics of an excellent end user support manual that you should take into consideration.

1. Accuracy

Short, succinct, easy-to-read these are the features of a good user manual. Producing extensive documents is not the key to success, so don’t strive to make your user manuals as long as possible. Some companies are of the opinion that the bigger the manual, the better it is. On the contrary, user gets more confused and, therefore, less satisfied.

“The number of readers is inversely proportional to the square of the length of the document.”

Norman’s Law

2. Enhanced findability

If the information in your guide is difficult to find, it won’t matter how useful it is. If a user cannot find what they need then the document isn’t worth anything. That’s why you need to provide good search options within your user support manual. These are some points you might want to consider:

  • Provide accurate headings. Every separate document needs to be named appropriately so that the user knows what solutions the content will provide. This way, it will be much easier for the to get what they customer need.
  • Include an index. An index is an alphabetically ordered list of key terms and concepts included in a user document, usually placed at the end of a document. It contains the core words, so user can refer to it to find what they need quickly.
  • Include a table of contents. A table of contents is an indispensable part of every user document as it helps summarise the topics covered in a manual and shows how they are divided into chapters.
  • Captions. If you use a large amount of screenshots, tables or images, make sure you explain what they mean and which info they refer to under each of them. This way you will make it possible for a user to find them in a user support manual without any difficulties.

3. Visuals

Visual communications are appreciated and well received. Information can be conveyed more easily than with huge blocks of text. Don’t focus on adding lots of text, focus on visuals instead.

Indeed, readers pay more attention to detailed screenshots than text in the first place. It is a better use of your time to annotate your screenshots and after supplement them with short and to-the-point descriptions instead of typing long messages, which most probably are not going to be appreciated.

Note: For better findability, summarise  the key points of the screenshot underneath it.

4. Step-by-step instructions

Step-by-step explanations has proved to be effective and popular with users. It walks you through the problem logically, leading to a solution and as a result gives clarity to every task.

The idea of instructions presented as step-by-step instructions is a win-win situation – it is both easier to create and comprehend. Make sure you use the imperative form of verbs for the descriptions for every step.

5. Multifunctionality 

A truly good document needs to be multifunctional. You spend time and effort on creating a high quality document, so you want to make good use of it.

  • optimise them for training purposes: put them online so your users can benefit from using them as training material;
  • optimise them for your customer support team: make your support team’s life easier by creating useful articles which they can use in the process of their work.

6. Relevant vocabulary

You need to use the right vocabulary to make it accessible for your target audience.

You’ll need to factor in such things as users’ awareness level of the product,  age, differing occupations etc. – the words you need to use have to be relevant to the main audience.

7. Consistency

Whatever you think should be present in your document needs to remain consistent. This means creating documents in the same format which will give the same feel and look to your users. If the same points are included each time, readers get used to the structure and it is easier for them to find what they are looking for. A great solution for guaranteed consistency is using templates.

8. Chunking

Huge blocks of text are easier to read when they are divided into sections. It will give the document more clarity. This process is known as text chunking. Some users will just need a particular part of a task, so if it is clearly divided into subheadings the user will easily find what they’re looking for.

9. Appropriate format

There are two main formats of user guides: functional manual and procedural guide. A carefully defined format may significantly influence the further success of your document, which is why you need to identify which kind of a guide is appropriate for your particular target audience. Learn more about user document formats.

To sum up, I have provided the key points you should consider during your end user support documentation creation. I believe their presence in a user support manual will considerably improve the quality and credibility.