Documentation beyond paper manuals

Once upon a time, user manuals were printed out on paper, added to folders, and lived on desks, gathering dust. In this new era, though, we can disseminate information to our users in all sorts of ways.


The obvious successor to a user manual is an ebook. It’s generally set out similarly to a paper manual, with the advantage of hyperlinks that users can click or tap on to quickly access the section that they need. These can be slow and difficult to search through. They can also be intimidating.

Pro: Easy to produce from existing documentation suite.
Con: Not particularly user-friendly.

Help files

Context sensitive help is native to a software product and can provide users with assistance based on what the user is currently doing and therefore what they might want help with. This can be difficult to integrate and keep current, and implies that the user interface is easy enough to understand that the user has managed to navigate through the product fairly close to where they need to be.

Pro: Accessed within the product itself.
Con: Often of limited usefulness.

Knowledge base

A knowledge base is a collection of articles that answer specific questions that might be posed by users. They’re typically indexed with keywords to make it easier for customers to find the information that they’re seeking. Many companies struggle to keep knowledge bases up to date and remove outdated information.

Pro: Easy to search and often based on users’ needs.
Con: Maintenance is a bitch.

Video tutorials

There are many different learning styles, and some people respond far better to information presented in video form than in text form. Video tutorials can be accompanied by transcripts to ensure optimal search engine coverage. Key, though, is creating videos that interest and engage your audience.

Pro: Better suit a large percentage of users, especially younger ones.
Con: Can be difficult or expensive to do well.


When support load is already high, sometimes the simplest option is to compile a list of the most common questions asked by potential and current customers, and ensure that the answers are carefully documented. This eventually decreases the load on customer support and helps users to access help more quickly.

Pro: Answers questions that users are actually asking.
Con: Often used as a cheap stopgap.


Similar to a knowledge base but often written and edited by consumers, wikis provide a range of articles and procedures tagged with keywords. Wikis are often more chaotic and difficult to search than a well organised knowledge base, but can provide a greater coverage of information that interests your users.

Pro: Attracts contributions from engaged users.
Con: Difficult to police incorrect and out-of-date information.


More and more users are interacting with businesses via social media like Twitter and Facebook. Companies can program chatbots to answer basic questions from profile visitors and refer more complex questions to technical support, a knowledge base, or other resources. They can either be a useful first point of contact or an annoying irrelevancy.

Pro: Can interact with users near-instantaneously and at any time.
Con: Potentially irritating and off-putting.

Live help

Skype and IM assistance from support people can provide a bridge between documentation and help desk. Users can opt to talk to a support person and receive links to useful procedures or move to a more traditional phone or email support.

Pro: Offers an informal method for users to ask ‘stupid’ questions.
Con: Requires constant monitoring of the live help media.


Forums have been around for decades, and they allow users to talk to each other about features of the products they’re using and answer each others’ questions. They require a lot of moderation, though, to minimise spam and offensive content being posted.

Pro: Users can help each other.
Con: Some people are arseholes.

Case study

Documenting the ways that some users are solving specific problems with your products can help new and prospective customers to visualise how they can use the products too. Depending on the level of detail, though, case studies can also help existing customers figure out how to better utilise your products, or to upsell premium services like customisation.

Pro: Showcases real-life use of your product.
Con: Requires your product to have made a real difference to someone.


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