Are User Guides Obsolete?

Most software companies I know are still pumping out user guides with great enthusiasm. When a client approaches me about a product, they’re almost always talking about creating paper or PDF manuals. But are we reaching the end of the user guide life cycle?

Does anybody read user guides anymore?

God knows I don’t. When I install a piece of software, I expect its functionality to be reasonably self-explanatory. Where it isn’t, or my needs are a little more esoteric, I go to a browser. I type in the name of the product and my question, then look for an article that answers it.

One of the wonderful things about the internet is its search engines. I love search engines with a fiery passion, because I remember life before them, and the difficulty of flipping through hundreds of index cards, looking for books that might possibly answer my question – if they were even in the library and not loaned out.

To a lot of people, user guides inhabit the same dusty reaches of memory as index cards and microfiche. They’re unwieldy, difficult to search through, and a pain in the neck to find once downloaded.

Should we produce user guides?

The idea of not producing user guides is a daunting one. The user guide can be a quick, easy way to skill up in a new piece of software. But if no one’s reading them, what’s the point?

There are a few reasons that a company might choose to produce user guides for its software:

  • Industry requirements – certain industries will require operator manuals for mission-critical software applications.
  • Information-dense systems – in any situation where only people with special expertise and knowledge will be using a piece of software, a user manual might be the best option.
  • IP concerns – companies keen to protect their intellectual property might feel happier providing manuals rather than open-to-the-public knowledge bases.
  • Uncertain internet access – in remote areas, internet access might be difficult, slow, or intermittent [PDF in link]. Customers might not be able to access online instructions when they need them.
  • Niche marketsolder customers and those who are technology-averse are often happier with a manual that they can print out.
  • Frequent consultations required – in these halcyon days of UI and UX design taken seriously, there aren’t many situations where a user should be reliant on a user manual in day-to-day operations. But where they are, having a user guide available is often the simplest and easiest solution.

How about the rest of us?

Scary though it might be, my advice is: let go of the user manual concept until your research tells you that they’re needed. There are so many available methods for us to communicate with our users. Before picking any way of documenting your software, I recommend looking at your target audience. How are they accessing information? Are they watching videos? Reading books? Using search engines? Asking questions on Facebook? Wherever and however your users get informed, that’s where your documentation should be meeting them.

Points to remember

  • Make your documentation easy for users to find and consume.
  • Don’t make your users step way out of their comfort zone to find out how to use your product.


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