Technical Writing & CMS

Four things you need to consider to write effective technical manuals

April 23, 2022

What is technical manual writing?

According to Wikipedia, the definition of technical writing is “writing or drafting technical communication used in technical and occupational fields […]”. Technical writing can be applied to a wide range of fields spanning computer programming applications, the accurate operation of complex industrial machinery or user manuals. In plain English: technical manual writing summarises the processes of producing assembly instructions and / or product feature documentation in a concise, unambiguous and comprehensive written format. In addition to hardcopy formats users are increasingly accessing technical manuals and user guides via digital media. Explainer videos on Youtube are booming, and more and more brands have started creating virtual, or 3D user manuals.

So what makes a manual a great manual? There are four areas that need to be covered:

1. User research: Understanding who is buying a product, who is setting it up and in what context will it be used?

Before we get started writing a client’s manual we ask ourselves: Who are the users of this product? Besides the actual users, are there other audiences that are relevant (e.g. is the product installed by a professional?). Understanding the context of usage will help create a better manual. Ikea does this in a very subtle way:
The Swedish furniture giant knows that its customers are likely to assemble their new furniture either during evenings (for purchases made during the day) or during weekends. Also, many Ikea products require many assembly steps. Novice users may require a considerable amount of time to put together the latest addition to their living space. Based on this simple insight Ikea decided to show a drawing of the final piece of furniture as the first step in its manual. You can see this in the image below.

Source: Ikea

The first thing the new owner of “Billy” the bookcase sees is the fully assembled product. As a next step Ikea provides guidance on how to unpack and lay-out the different components. Ikea does this with purpose in mind: Imagine the frustration that sank in the last time you opened up a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle? No matter how much you were looking forward to completing the puzzle, right when you opened the puzzle’s plastic bag you will have likely felt a bit overwhelmed. By structuring their manuals in a way that highlights what the final result looks like Ikea is increasing printing cost, but mitigating fear-of-failure. By being reminded that all the loose components in front of them will soon be transformed into “Billy” the bookcase the new owners of “Billy” will feel a sense of motivation and focus on the goal, rather than worry about all the loose parts.

Use of proper and concise language

A basic factor is the use of correct and proper language. Is a manual writing grammatically correct and is it easy to understand? Is appropriate jargon used given the context of a product and the level of technical understanding that can be expected from a first-time user? Especially when producing manuals in multiple languages, this can be a challenge. We have all had experiences going through the frustrations of reading a manual that seems to have come straight out of Google translate. Providing users technically complex documents that use improper wording or incorrect grammar can leave customers puzzled at best and tarnish your brand’s reputation at worst.

Another barrier to composing effective technical manuals is that excellent language and writing skills are often insufficient. Writers do also need to have a technical background to fully grasp the operating principles of complex machinery. So while your copywriter may be great at ‘wordsmithing’ he or she may not be an expert in technical aspects of your product. Not knowing how Air Watts (AW) is defined, or to what level of suction a certain amount of Air Watts translates into will be an issue when writing a manual for a vacuum cleaner. To avoid shortcomings in this area, at Impala we make it a point to request detailed product specifications from all our clients and only work with writers who have received technical training: 75% of our full-time technical writers have a university level degree in technical communication.

Quo Vadis? Why it pays off to go the extra mile and truly localise your manuals

An aspect that is often overlooked is the importance to truly localise product manuals. Try to provide units of measurement in the format used by your target audience. Use the metric system (meters and grams) for most countries, but the imperial system when creating documents for the UK, the United States and other countries that are used to measuring things in feet, inches, and pounds. If you are unsure as to which measuring unit to use for which country, you can refer to this overview to ensure you get it right.

At Impala we believe that best-practice localisation only starts with converting units of measurement. When we localise user manuals for our clients we try to understand how product usage may be affected by cultural aspects. For instance, is a blender going to be used to prepare a refreshing smoothie, or to make a tasty hot soup? Hint: in the later case it will be critical to include information on the maximum temperature the blender can withstand in your user guide.

Details like this can have a significant impact on user experience and will help create a positive brand sentiment. As consumers’ purchase decisions are often influenced by personal recommendations and / or reviews this will indirectly also help grow sales. According to a recent study 67% of consumers are influenced by online reviews. Therefore it is important to weigh your brand’s marketing budget against your budget for ‘customer experience’!

Our multi-national team at Impala Services has a wealth of experience in quality assurance and testing and is always looking out for our clients to help them spot critical localisation requirements that need to be included in product manuals and assembly instructions. Get in touch with us to learn how our translation and localisation team can help mitigate usability issues when producing technical manuals for multiple countries.

Why icons and labels can be worth a thousand words – and thousands of dollars in savings

Icons, labels, symbols, illustrations and callouts help users navigate technical documents. The example below shows one page of the manual for a Tesla. The image of the touchscreen shown is marked up with numbers in order to make it easier for readers to understand which element shown on the touchscreen is explained in which section of the manual. Tesla also uses intuitive icons (i.e. the lock) to make it easier for users skimming through.

One can also note the use of a ‘Warning’ label in the first paragraph. The use of correct warning and energy labels in both manuals and on product packings is regulated. The display of accurate labels is depending on the industry or legal framework of the country where a product is sold. At Impala we have a stringent process to ensure technical documents meet these compliance standards. Our compliance team advises our clients on the accurate use of warning and energy labels. This may sound like a trivial and technical procedure, but in practice the consequences of getting it wrong can be costly for brands and importers as the costs for product recalls or even legal proceedings can be significant.

Source: Tesla