What is a User Manual?

A user manual, in its simplest form, is an instruction manual for the use of a product. In our case, we are concerned with products of the software application variety.


Oftentimes, the term user denotes a non-technical person, though it is just as easily shorthand for how a person uses an application and not the capabilities of the person. For example, our whizbang web developer Roy G. Biv may only be a user of a paint program despite his obvious technical capabilities.


For the purposes of this tutorial, however, user will refer to the end-users of a product, the folks who need to know how to use an application and are not whizbang developers. Their main job is not the application. Rather, the application is a tool used in their main job, making it imperative that they have the clear and straightforward instructions. If there is a doubt about specifying something for fear that it's possibly too elementary, the bias is on including it over assuming it is already known.


A user manual needs to have these elements (click each for the explanation):



In order for these elements to be effective, the user manual writer must understand the task at hand, i.e., the reason the application is being used, and anticipate how a user will utilize the application. This produces a user manual that is a reference, a tutorial and an answer machine.