Can Your User Guide Be Too Helpful?

How much information is too much information?

Image: Will Lion (Flickr)

One of the established gold standards of good tech writing is completeness. There’s nothing worse than a user guide with only a few vague lines of text or an unlabeled diagram.

But too much information is just as bad. These are user guides that describe every detail and include every mouse click and every possible screen to ensure that the manual is fool-proof and usable by anyone, no matter what their experience level.

There’s only one problem with that: It’s useless for anyone, no matter what their experience level.

Tonight my wife told me about a set of procedures at her office that are so meticulously written, a two-page reference guide has ballooned into a 44-page mess (that’s an inflation rate of 2100%!). Every screen and window is explained. Every mouse click is documented. How many of the staff do you think actually read through that thing?

Now imagine your customers struggling with the same issue in your user guides. How would that impact Tech Support? Product returns? Customer loyalty and viral marketing?

Overwhelm your users with minutiae they don’t need and they’ll never get to the good stuff that would actually help them.

So how much is too much?

This is why knowing your audience is such a big deal. If you know where their competencies are and what their pain points will be, you can gloss over the stuff that they already know how to do. Instead of detailing every screen in the Installation Wizard, you can simply say, “Install the software.” Rather than telling them how to save their work, just trust that they’ll know how to do it already.

Beginners and intermediate users won’t have any use for advanced, more technical instructions, but you could have expert users that are looking for that kind of information. Structure your user guide so the advanced information is separate from everything else, but is easy to find and navigate. That way, you can help your expert users without overwhelming the majority of your customers.

Make it easy for your users to provide feedback. The more you know about their experience with your user guide, the easier it’ll be for you to update it to their needs.

When you hit that balance between too little and too much content, your users will find your user guides to be just what they need. And it’ll cut down on tech support costs while increasing customer satisfaction.