Finding the Best Format for Your User Guides

Back in the day, you had one choice for publishing user guides: the printed manual. But with the advent of the internet and digital content, your choices seem almost limitless. With all those options, how do you decide what’s the best format for creating user guides?

It’s usually best to publish user guides in multiple formats, because each format has its own strengths and weaknesses. By creating two or three types of user help, you can cover the bases and give your users different options that will meet their needs more fully.

Here’s a quick rundown of several types of user guide formats and the best scenarios for implementing them.

Hard copy. These are paper manuals that come with your product. Examples include vehicle owner’s manuals, Lego instructions, or the manual that came with your dishwasher. This is best for hardware products such as appliances, power tools, toys, office equipment, even mobile devices. The upside is you don’t need a computer, you can take notes in the margins, and they’re portable. The downside is they don’t allow hyperlinking to email/web pages, they can be a pain to use with software, and there’s no interactivity to improve usability.

Electronic PDF. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of electronic PDFs for user guides. The only time I would recommend using them is if you want to put an electronic version of your printed manual on your website so visitors can access your manual electronically. This can be helpful for customers who have lost their manual or potential customers who are doing product research. Otherwise, there are much better electronic options available that are more useful, more helpful, and more enjoyable.

Microsoft Word online helpOnline help. Online help is that window that pops up when you click on a Help button in a software application. It can be built into the application or hosted on the web. Online help displays one topic at a time; you can use a table of contents, an index, or search to find the information you need. Often, the help window is context-sensitive: it automatically opens the topic that you need, based on what you’re doing in the software.

Online help is designed for software applications. It’s much more convenient than PDF, it can be interactive, and it can incorporate multimedia.

Online help isn’t useful if your users won’t be around a computer, and I don’t recommend using it with mobile apps, which have very little screen real estate.

Video. Video is a great option for software or hardware. Short tutorials can make complicated or hard-to-explain instructions easy to understand. Video shouldn’t be used as the only help format, but it’s terrific as a supplement to other forms. You can also upload videos to YouTube, so customers can easily search and find them online.

Embedded. Embedded help doesn’t get a lot of attention, but you see it everywhere. This is help that is embedded directly into the product itself, at the point of use. The user doesn’t have to open another window or go to a manual to find the information they need—it’s already right there in front of them. In software, it’s available right in the workspace. Some examples include pop-up tooltips, task wizards, or explanatory side panels. On hardware, it’s printed right on the product. My chainsaw has a four-panel sticker on it that shows how to start it up.

Because embedded help is built in to the interface, this is the best choice for mobile apps.

Embedded help provides the best user experience—it doesn’t take your customers from their task and often they don’t even realize they’re using it because it’s so well integrated into the product. Implement this format whenever possible—although often you’ll need to pair it with a full user guide/online help, because there’s only so much information you can reasonably embed into your product.

Wordpress embedded help

WordPress has a drop-down panel that provides helpful information directly in the interface. The content changes based on the screen you’re using.

Wikis/Support Forums. If you’ve got an active community of users, often wikis and support forums can be a great option for providing help. These tools let you pool knowledge from your entire community—customers and tech support—and they encourage engagement within the community. They can also incorporate multimedia and link to other resources.


There are many other format options, but these are the most common. Understanding which formats make sense for your product is important, but you’ll also need to make implementation strategy decisions for each type of format you use. These are important considerations, and you might find it helpful to talk with an expert about your options.

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