Creating how-to guides the easy way

Why every organization should be creating how-to guides:

In any work environment, employees will be asked to complete tasks outside of their usual areas of expertise. To ensure success in these circumstances, it is important to provide clear and concise instructions that demonstrate the correct way to carry out a task or process.

User manuals, tutorials, or how-to guides can help minimize errors and boost productivity while saving time and avoiding frequent inquiries from employees. They’re especially significant when complicated programmes are used that need detailed description.

Good work instructions can build a bridge from the product to the user but what is more, they can also help employees understand the whole company better and get used to existing and new work processes more quickly.

In this article, we will show you different types of how-to guides and address the most common mistakes that can occur when creating them. This will help you avoid these mistakes from the outset.

What challenges companies face when creating how-to guides.

The biggest hurdle for companies to create quality documentation is the time and effort it takes to make them.

And even if processes and procedures have already been documented, the second step is to ensure that the guides are always up-to-date and comply with the latest standards or reflect the latest version of an application.

It is no surprise that finding employees who are willing or able to create user-friendly how-to guides can be challenging. Very few companies employ professional technical writers leaving documentation to the IT department, which is already busy enough with day-to-day business.

This makes it all the more important for companies to establish a systematic approach to writing those docs and pave the way for every department to be able to create high-quality guides and documentation. To do this successfully requires time, capacities, and resources, knowledge as well as the right tools. Only then can they benefit from the numerous advantages that good documentation offers.

What are common formats for how-to guides and which one is right for you?

Whether you want to create a how-to guide, quickly capture a process for new team members, explain complex software, or simply document that one workflow that needs to be done every few years that no one can ever remember – you are faced with the same question every time. What format is best for these instructions?

Instructions, how-to guides, or manuals come in many different formats. You can communicate your content in writing or in video. There are also step-by-step guides with screenshots, which are usually accompanied by written instructions. Interactive guides can be accessed online or might directly overlay the action elements in the application you are using.

Which type of guide is best for you, of course, depends on the context and which tools you have available, as well as how much time you have to create these documents.

Video instructions, for example, may be produced quickly, but not everyone (=nobody!) wants to view a 60-minute video in order to promptly finish a process and instead prefers to “CTRL + F” search for the right spot inside an instruction.

It’s critical that you understand various types of work instructions and keep an eye on which one is the most effective for you.

Written instructions

The most commonly used type of work instruction in companies is written documentation. It consists of a text that contains all relevant information. Text instructions can work very well for higher-level processes, describe abstract procedures or get to the heart of overarching issues. If things get more specific and you need to describe a process or a product such as a software application in detail, then illustrated instructions are better suited for your purpose.

The illustrated guide

Illustrated instructions or step-by-step guides are very popular, but are not yet as widespread as written instructions. Illustrated how-to guides often contain screenshots and visual elements that can easily show and explain even highly complex programmes. With the help of highlights and tags, they can draw the viewer’s attention to key sections of a guide.

Apart from being made available offline or even as printed manuals, illustrated instructions can also be distributed electronically, e.g. via a knowledge database.

However, there is one potential disadvantage with these instructions.

If no standardized tools or streamlined documentation procedure exists, illustrated instructions are in most cases created with a screenshot tool and Word. This can become a big pain really fast. Without tools, instructions have to be created manually: screenshots need to be taken, instructive texts written, and all this on top of the day-to-day business. This disrupts the workflow and robs employees of their valuable time to do their actual jobs.

  The good news: You can save yourself the effort if you use tools that automatically document each step in the background as you perform a task. No need to pause your work, as the documentation is done for you. There are now several of these tools on the market, you can get an overview in our blog post on various documentation tools. If you have to document a whole host of applications, our documentation software FlowShare can help you with the effort. You can sign up for a free FlowShare trial version here.

When do you need a step-by-step guide?

Illustrated step-by-step guides are best suited especially for software documentation or detailed operating instructions that depict a complex process in a programme.

Video instructions

Video tutorials or screencasts are a popular means of documenting how-to guides, simply because the instructions are produced in exactly the time it takes to carry out the process. Or so it appears at first. A well-produced video nevertheless adds time to the process.

Especially since it needs to be recorded completely from scratch as soon as a process changes. And this happens more often than most people would like: new software updates, updated processes, or completely new applications require you to record your video all over again.

You should only create your tutorials in video form if there really is no other option. There are far more efficient tools for creating tutorials, including our documentation software FlowShare.

FlowShare captures every step of your process as you perform it, regardless of which programme you are documenting. The result is a complete step-by-step guide that enables everyone to carry out your process exactly as you have specified.

Interactive instructions

These manuals are mainly used in software systems that contain standardized processes. New users and customers can be guided through the product and shown the essential functions as they move around in the system.

Another possibility of interactive instructions are simulations.

The 5 biggest mistakes organizations make when creating manuals and how to avoid them.

1. The instructions are not up to date

There are few things more annoying than putting a lot of time into a manual or recording a training video, only to find that it is out of date within a very short time. The most common reason for this are software updates. You need to be prepared for such cases, so set up a process that allows you to update the work instructions quickly. Then you never have to start from scratch again if only a few steps change within the process.

It should be possible to give feedback on existing documents, for example, if you use an internal wiki via a comment function or even an integrated feedback function at work. This way, you will get genuine feedback from the readers of the manuals. Also, set up a regular schedule to check for necessary updates in your work instructions.

FlowShare allows you to record processes holistically – and at the same time you can easily add or delete individual steps or add new ones to existing instructions.

2. The instructions are not detailed enough

When professionals document processes, it can easily happen that steps they take for granted are skipped and are missing in the work instructions later on. This can be a keyboard shortcut at a crucial point, or a dialogue or input that happens more quickly than it was documented. Most of the time, people just keep documenting without going back and capturing that step.

So if you have expert knowledge in what you are documenting, put yourself in the position of a layperson. Assume less knowledge rather than more. Even if it means writing a few more sentences and documenting seemingly minor steps.

Another reason for lack of detail is the effort involved in capturing each step and taking each screenshot.

Because FlowShare captures every step you make, it creates a complete guide to your process, no step is left out and you, as a full professional, can focus on what you do best – while the instructions are automatically created in the background.

3. The instructions are difficult to understand

There are usually two main reasons why instructions are difficult to understand.

  • Firstly, content – the authors do not know exactly what to write. They try to cram all the information into a manual, which leads to readers not understanding it.
  • Secondly, the form or the layout of the guide – which also leads to the next mistake.

4. The instructions are not clearly laid out.

It is rare that those responsible for creating how-to guides have experience with graphic design. They lack the knowledge of what makes a good manual design or good templates for documentation to communicate know-how and information most effectively. What they painstakingly compile in Word is difficult for readers to understand. Most often, they lack a suitable, clear layout or a good structure.

To avoid cluttered and incomprehensible documentation, give clear guidelines on how instructions should look, for example by using uniform templates for SOPs, operating instructions, documentation and work instructions. 

5. The instructions do not contain any pictures

A wall of text makes any manual, no matter how tediously written, difficult to digest, especially when describing operating elements. Even industry giants produce manuals completely devoid of even a single image – most of Google’s manuals, for example, simply do not contain any images to visualize the support instructions. Instead of simply using an image to indicate where to click next, laborious, clumsy text instructions are created. And to what end? Even experienced users need to identify which button exactly is being described in the manual, leading to delays in the execution of the instructions.

How to avoid the most common mistakes

To avoid these mistakes, you should establish a systematic approach to creating instructions, so they are comprehensive, up-to-date, uniform, and more easily understood. We recommend including pictures in the instructions to make them easier to follow and save time on the execution of the documented processes.

If you prefer a reliable way to avoid all these mistakes in the first place, you should take a look at FlowShare. Once FlowShare is installed on your Windows computer, you can use it to document everything and anything you do on your computer. You automatically create detailed illustrated step-by-step instructions that you can easily update in neat designs offered within a large selection of templates. The high level of detail means that even employees with little to no computer skills are picked up. You can test FlowShare free of charge and create an unlimited number of manuals with it within 14 days.

How to create a how-to guide that everyone understands

You want to create a high-quality manual? There are many methods for doing so and we have summarized the essential steps for you here. You will see: it’s not that hard. 

1. Select the relevant processes for the documentation

In every team there is someone who is the point of reference for all questions. And even though that might be handy for those posing questions, the one answering spends a lot of time explaining processes – again and again – instead of doing their own work. That does not have to be the case. Especially when it comes to recurring questions about specific work processes it is a good idea to capture them as a how-to guide. Collect questions, problems, and become aware of your company’s core processes. A good occasion for this is, for example, when a new employee joins the team. They will need to know all these work processes and get up to speed with them quickly – so why not use this chance to document them.

2. Know the product or process you want to document inside out

Before you document something, you need to know it. And really know it. In most teams, processes are not completed one single way but each team member has their own technique to it. However, not having a standardized process can lead to confusion as to how things are actually to be done, so ideally you will want to identify the best practice and document it for everyone to adopt.

3. Record all the steps that are necessary to carry out a particular task. 

As a professional, you may have internalized a process to a degree that you may not even be aware of the individual clicks and operations it takes to perform the process. Especially when you are documenting procedures within software, pay attention to less obvious steps like keyboard shortcuts or combinations. You need to document these as well. Make sure to write text descriptions for the instructions covering all essential steps.

4. Give your instructions a table of contents

If your instructions contain more than 15 steps, you should always structure them with a table of contents. To this end, you may want to group related steps into a section, making them more readily accessible. Since often only part of the documentation will be relevant, a table of contents including these sections ensures that the relevant part can be found quickly by users of your manual.

5. Don’t be stingy with graphics, pictures, and screenshots of the essential user interfaces

A picture is worth a thousand words. When showing user interfaces of a product, use appropriate and up-to-date visuals of the programme. Focus on the area that matters for each step rather than always showing the entire desktop. Instead of struggling through endless text, the viewer of your work can see directly what matters. In addition, you can also use graphics if you want to emphasize an important aspect.

6. Create clear hierarchies with good design templates for your user guide

Create clear hierarchies of headings, images, and descriptive text – preferably with an existing template, or with a documentation tool where you can choose from many design templates to make your documentation attractive.

7. Give your documentation a professional look

Good templates not only serve the purpose of giving you a good structure. The best templates also make your documentation look like someone has professionally designed it. It is worth the effort – because well-designed documents are also better received by readers. For example, employee handbooks with company branding even promote cohesion and feelings of belonging to the organization.

How to create professional step-by-step guides with little effort

If you are convinced to follow the above-mentioned steps but don’t want to do all this manually, then our documentation tool FlowShare can take much tedious work off your hands.

FlowShare records your process as you complete it. It takes screenshots of each step, writes short instructions on where to click, and adds visual markers to your process.

It automatically assembles your steps into a comprehensible guide.

This you can export into pre-designed templates, making your guides an eye-pleaser – without any design experience.

This way you can create professional step-by-step guides with little effort, making your work processes understandable for everyone.

No guide is no solution either

It takes time and experience to realize the consequences that not documenting processes can have for your company. Processes are simply not optimized, there is never just one best way to do something, but everyone does it the way they think it should be done. This vagueness also means that employees often do not know how to do certain tasks, which leads to lost time and mistakes. Productivity suffers as a result. Do you still think that it is just a process and documentation is not that important?

Do you have questions or want to speed up your documentation processes? Download the free trial version of FlowShare and create an unlimited number of guides, free for 14 days!

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