Creating User Manuals for Custom Applications

Manuals are valuable to your clients because they provide a reference for end users and back-end users of the application. Sometimes the client that you are working with will not be the end user, and it’s important to provide your client with information so they can pass on the knowledge to others.

Creating a manual might sound like a very long and arduous process, but it doesn’t have to be.  Below are some tips to help you simplify making a user manual for a custom application.

  1. Who will be the primary user of the application?  How many people will be using the application?  Once you answer these two questions, you will know how to craft the manual.  If the primary users of the application are managers and executives, for example, that means the user manual needs to be brief and to the point.  If hundreds of office workers will be using the new database you’ve just created, then the manual will need to be more expansive.  If this is the case, you may want to ask the client if an in-house training might be more efficient.
  2. Does the company already have a certain standard for their manuals? If so, accessing one of these manuals from the company can cut hours off of your time crafting the manual.  Starting from scratch can be daunting, so if there’s a way you can match the company’s pre-existing standards, the better it is for you and your client.
  3. Start the manual off with a table of contents. This will not only help the end users quickly locate information, it will also help you outline what needs to be covered in the manual.
  4. Focus on navigation and screen shots. Chances are, the end user will know exactly what they are looking at in the application, whether it be reports or data.  What the user won’t know is how to navigate around the application and what the shortcuts are.  Also, most people are visual learners, which means the end user will better absorb the information you lay out in the manual with some screen shots to illustrate.
  5. Include a Quick Guide in the back. Usually an application will have icons that the user will not be familiar with. Include the most used icons in the Quick Guide, and include the lesser-used ones within the manual, if necessary.
  6. Get as much feedback as possible. Before showing the client your work, you may want to ask a coworker to look over the manual. When you’ve presented the manual to the client, ask if there’s something that should be included that you missed.

To be truthful, manuals do take time to write, but clients are always appreciative to have them. You can rest assured that your time was well spent, because it helped many end users navigate the custom application that you’ve built for them.

4 thoughts on “Creating User Manuals for Custom Applications”

  1. For projects that include a user manual, I go so far as to write the manual before the software! That way, the manual does triple-duty additionally acting as a scope-of-work document and as a to-do list.

  2. I have blogged about my love for ScreenSteps, a Mac/Windows program designed for creating software documentation. It is ideal for generating documentation for FileMaker or other database projects. I found engaging in the process of generating manuals actually helps me to improve my software. If I am working through explaining how the software works in ScreenSteps and it seems to me too complicated, I will usually make an effort to simplify my software.

    It is a great product, something every FileMaker or database developer should have a look at.

    http://hbase.net/2010/07/05/screensteps-vs-macsnapper/

    http://www.bluemangolearning.com/screensteps/

    Doug

  3. Great feedback from you two!  Because I am not a developer, it's really great to hear how developers like to approach user manuals. 

    Also, thank you Doug!  This could be very useful.

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