Choosing the relevant format for your guide is a crucial step in the whole process of creating user documentation. The carefully defined format may significantly influence the further success of your document. That is why you need to identify the particular kind of a guide for every target audience. In this article, you may find the explanation of the difference between a reference guide, procedural manual and some other formats of technical documentation.

Going deeper into the topic, there are two main types of user guides: functional manual and procedural guideIn the previous article, we’ve uncovered that there is a slight difference between the terms “guide” and “manual”. So, to avoid confusion, in this article we will use them interchangeably.

A functional manual is an introductory technical document which gives basic information on a software product. It provides a description of each individual button and text field.

A procedural guide is a comprehensive document, explaining how to perform a particular step-by-step procedure with the product help in order to solve a single problem not being distracted by all other fields in a product’s interface. Procedural guides don’t just give the basic knowledge about a product, but also explain what the better way to do something is.

In other words, a functional manual gives explanations on “what” the software product does, while a procedural guide contains information on “how to”  perform all these “whats”. The decisive criterion here is the target audience of the software documentation. Functional guides are aimed at beginners while procedural guides best meet goals of tech-savvy users.

There are also various types of procedural guides and functional manuals. Let’s have a closer look at them.

  • A user guide is a primary manual for all users of a product. It consists of directions for installing and using software or hardware. You won’t find a detailed description of different aspects of the software, but only some basic information on how it can be used. This usually includes captured workflows of different procedures and is best explained with a set of screenshots and step-by-step instructions. A user guide may also contain some theoretical knowledge of product’s functions.

The subtype of a user guide is an installation guide which is a set of step-by-step instructions on how to install a particular software. It usually comes in both versions – digital and printed ones. The reason for this is that there may not always be an access to a digital version of the end-user document.

  • A reference guide, as compared to user manuals, is a more detailed reference to some particular parts of the software. It is a more advanced version of a user guide, created for the users who are familiar with the software but need some details or a quick guidance. They are usually organized alphabetically (for example, by keywords) but not around user tasks. Novices will struggle to comprehend them.
  • A training manual provides just basic information on some software. It usually goes as a first step in the learning process, followed up by details, included in reference or user manuals. The great example of a training manual is a guide on how to use Microsoft PowerPoint within a Microsoft Office Course.
  • A run book is another kind of a guide, containing an extensive set of instructions to maintain the daily routine of a computer system or network, documented by an IT professional or administrator. They exist with the aim of making all the procedures replaceable in case of emergency and help keep the system infrastructure in one place. Similar to other types of guides, workflows in run books are described in a form of the detailed step-by-step guides. To save time, IT professionals tend to automatize this procedure by using process documentation tool.  You can get a deeper insight into this kind of a guide in our coming articles. So stay tuned!
  • Having acquainted yourself with several types of technical documentation, keep also in mind that two or more types of guides are frequently combined.For example, user and reference guides are most likely to be mixed with each other. Similarly, several guides can make up a single manual.To sum up, there are many formats and types of user guides. Thus, be sure to tune the information you are putting together to the corresponding format, and the audience, correspondingly.