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Navigation, User Manuals and Technical Writing

23rd September 2011 Posted in Blog, Content, Documentation, Technical Writers 0 Comments

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Navigation – it’s what takes a reader from their current learning experience to a completely new experience, one that hopefully results in their learning a new skill or task. With a user manual, a user can instantly know what they need to know, assuming they read it from start to finish. But what’s the best format for learning?

According to some, this learning format for a user manual works best:

  • Cover
  • Title page
  • Copyright information
  • Table of Contents
  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter summary
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter summary
  • Additional chapters
  • Appendices
  • Troubleshooting
  • Reference tables
  • Glossary
  • Index

As with any ‘suggested’ way of doing things, there are those who disagree. What does work with this model is the idea of the basic structure. The cover, title page, and copyright information are standard. Having the Table of Contents is also helpful to the reader, both for letting them know what to expect and to let them know where they can find certain pieces of information in the manual.

But the key sections are the chapter summaries and the troubleshooting sections. These sections provide the basic concepts that the readers should have learned from each chapter as well as a place to go when troubles come up. These extremely helpful sections are often the ones that readers will return to the most, and they are the sections on which a technical writer should focus.

While all user manuals will certainly have different objectives and methods of creating content, this structure is a strong way to begin your next user manual assignment, or to create a structure for a technical writer you hire. After all, the reader needs to be able to use the manual – and the best way to help is through clear, consistent and thorough navigation.

What your thoughts on what constitutes good ‘navigation’ for a user manual? Please leave a comment.

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