Most technical authors cut their teeth by writing or at least maintaining either a user’s guide or some other form of manual. Even software-based technical authors who write Help content are essentially writing a manual for using the software application. For decades they were the preferred, perhaps even the only, form of technical communication that was available to explain a product to a new user. However, we in the technical communications industry are constantly hearing about the need to move beyond manuals and embrace new ways of communicating content. Many consumer products no longer come with a comprehensive manual; a basic start-up guide then allows users to access online content to help them answer questions. Although this trend is significant and important, it’s been our experience that the traditional manual still has a lot of things going for it.
Firstly, as we’ve discussed in a separate article, manuals are usually a regulatory requirement. However, it would be doing a disservice to manuals to use this alone as justification for their continued existence. Manuals are a very useful source of reference material for a product. Settings and their meanings are often most easily understood by consulting a list in a manual. Terminology is easily explained in a glossary; symbols and their meanings can be quickly found in a table; connections between components are simple to follow in a clear, well-designed diagram.
In technical communication, one size doesn’t fit all; each method of conveying content has its pros and cons. Innovations like online video and augmented reality are complemented by a manual when it comes to complex products with multiple operating modes. It’s often true that a well-made online video is a more effective learning tool for a complicated physical operation than a series of pictures and words in a step-by-step procedure. However, it rapidly becomes somewhat tedious to sit through it again and again to find that one step you can’t remember; easier to flip to the page in the manual showing the appropriate step and have it next to you while you work through the operation. While the video in this case is the initial teaching aid, the manual reminds the user of what they have already learnt the next time they need to perform the same procedure.
This highlights another point that may cause innovators to hold their heads in despair. Many companies save money these days by only producing soft copies of their manuals, usually as PDFs. This is not really the best format to view and navigate easily on a screen, and the tech comms industry has woken up to this by creating HTML-based formats that are much more suitable for tablets and smartphones. Of course, electronic manuals can be downloaded to your mobile device in advance of a service visit, as many plant rooms still seem to be in black spots for going online, and the documents are certainly easier to carry around this way. However, you still need battery power to read them, and somewhere to balance your expensive piece of electronics while you use both hands to work on the product. A printed manual doesn’t need wi-fi, mobile phone signal, or even electricity to read (beyond a light source). It’s simple to add your own notes or comments, making the manual a living document that is customisable to suit its owner, as well as assisting with providing feedback to improve future revisions. And it seems that we humans still have an affinity for paper when it comes to long-ish documents; after all, the demise of the printed book was predicted in the face of tablets and e-readers, and yet their sales remain strong.
So don’t be too quick to dismiss the manual as yesterday’s solution to communicating technical content. It’s easy to be distracted and diverted by the innovations that the burgeoning world of digital technology can offer; many of these certainly offer some intriguing possibilities to help enrich a user’s experience of a product, but neither are they the answers to all our needs. Manuals still provide a strong and stable foundation upon which all other user assistance can be built.
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