Academic Insight: Creating Valuable User Guides and Handbooks

Written by: Shontarius D. Aikens

A key focus in the management discipline is the effective and efficient allocation and use of resources. Traditionally, resources are grouped into four different types or categories: Physical, Financial, Human and Intellectual. I’ve often shared with my students that another resource that often gets overlooked is the resource of Time. During a typical workday, employees encounter situations that require them to spend significant amounts of time assisting others with navigating and interacting with essential organizational systems and processes. And since time is a valuable and finite resource, there’s always a push for new ways to do more in less time. The focus of my article for this month is based on a guiding question I have used in my personal experiences with helping individuals address this. And that guiding question is: “Do You See What They See?” To provide some background and context, consider this scenario.

You purchase a product or service that is advertised as “easy to use”, “minimal setup required” or “simple instructions to follow.” But in reality, your experience with using the product or service is cumbersome, takes up too much time and the instructions are complex. When this happens, you get frustrated, experience buyer’s remorse and/ or become less motivated to use the product or service due to the steep learning curve to become competent

In an organization setting, the full potential and capabilities of organizational processes can’t be realized when there is a lack of buy-in or non-use by users. This results in decreased levels of organizational effectiveness and efficiency and, in some cases, inefficient use of time.

Through various jobs and service commitments over the course of my career, I’m often tasked with creating self-help user guides and handbooks to help individuals interact with technology or computer software programs. I strive to take as much guesswork and ambiguity as possible out of the user interaction experience, and the guiding question of “Do You See What They See?” helps me when creating these training materials. And because of this, I’ve been able to help users and managers be more effective and efficient while also saving time. If your organization is looking to improve the quality of its self-help guides for users of your products or services, below are three basic guidelines and factors to take into consideration.

The User’s Prior Experience and Future Involvement Frequency

Those who utilize a program, service, or process on a frequent basis will have more in-depth knowledge and a higher level of comfort when using it. Not so much for others. Think about and take into consideration a) the percentage of users who need to utilize a certain process, b) if this will be their first time using it and c) the level of frequency of their interactions with this process going forward.

Balance the use of Pictures, Written Text and Audio

Pictures and images are great in helping a user see the big picture or to anticipate how something should or will look like at certain stages of a process. Written text is good at providing additional clarity, especially when in the format of step-by-step instructions. Audio is good at reinforcing and supporting both visuals and written text. Depending upon your objectives, it is important to be intentional about using the best method of communication to help the user. Below are questions and guidelines for each communication method:

  • Pictures: What should be displayed to give the user cues on what to look for?
  • Written Text: Are there specific stages where additional clarity and commentary needs to be provided? Can it be written in the format of simple step-by-step instructions?
  • Audio: Can audio enhance the pictures and written text?

Incorporating all three communication methods is ideal. For example, think about how a GPS unit is a delicate balance between the use of pictures, written text, and audio to help a driver navigate unfamiliar roads and highways.

Create and Test the Prototype

After creating the user guide or handbook, you have the finished product, right? In the words of famous sportscaster Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend!” All you have at this point is a finished prototype that must be tested. A scene from the movie Iron Man (2008) illustrated the importance of testing a prototype. During a test flight of Tony Stark’s Mark II armored suit, he encountered a problem when ice began to accumulate on the suit impairing its functionality. During a postflight analysis session with his artificial intelligence assistant J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark made changes to the metal composition of his armored suit. At the end of the film, that upgrade turned out to be beneficial, as it gave Stark a tactical advantage when fighting the antagonist during a battle.

When testing user guides and handbooks, I recommend piloting them with individuals who have no experience or background with using the system or process to see if they can successfully navigate the system or process using the instructions alone. Afterwards, conduct a focus group and gather feedback to determine a) the level of ease in following the instructions, b) any instructions that were confusing that need to be clarified, c) any points where the user got lost or stuck, because the instructions didn’t match the user’s experience, and d) feedback on the actual time it took to read the user guide and to complete the individual tasks. This information will be extremely beneficial when revising to create the final version of the user guide or handbook.

Dr. Aikens can be reached at: [email protected]

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