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How to Write Good Product Instructions (And Why You Don’t Have A Choice Not To)

How to Write Good Product Instructions (And Why You Don’t Have A Choice Not To)

[By Karen Geier]

You may have noticed a fundamental shift in how products are packaged recently – some items don’t even come with instructions in the box anymore. Instead, you are directed to a website with searchable instructions with illustrations and sometimes videos. If your company or brand hasn’t considered doing this, you’re missing out on a big opportunity to inform and make some brand loyalists in the process.

Product Instructions Shouldn’t Be an Afterthought

If you consider that the ease of use of a product is at the heart of why people stay loyal to a brand, then you will see that providing your customers – or potential customers – with clear, easy-to-navigate instructions and demonstrations of your product could be what’s standing in the way of steady sales and even runaway sales.

There are entire websites dedicated to fans explaining the “missing instructions” for products. If your company isn’t the primary participant in that conversation, you’re missing a trick.

What Makes Instructions Good

Think about the last time you had to explain directions or instructions for operating something to someone over the phone. Was it successful on your first try? Likely not. This is because great instructions involve really specific, succinct language in order to get the point across in the clearest way possible.

If you look at old recipes, these are the epitome of bad instructions. “Beat until it comes together” has different meanings for everyone who reads it.

What makes instructions easy to follow is clarity, focus, and visual elements (these can be illustrations, photographs, or videos).

Making Your Instructions Better

The best way to improve the way you explain things is to consider the point of view of someone who has no prior knowledge. This means none. It doesn’t mean you’re assuming someone has used an iPad or driven a car before. You cannot be sure of the cultural frames of reference for your end user, so putting something in euphemistic terms, saying it’s like operating a bicycle or a lawn mower, or using jargon is not advisable. Consider that your end user might not be a native English speaker or reader. Think about how you would explain your product to a child in kindergarten. That’s your starting point. Look for ways to describe steps to your end user in ways that are specific and descriptive. If a part is called something internally that has no equivalent in most people’s lives, use a descriptor for that part that makes sense to your end user.

A Trick to Knowing If Your Instructions Are Clear

A great way to test your work is to show it to a person who has never seen your product before. Hand them the product, and ask them to demonstrate it back to you. If they can’t, your instructions aren’t clear enough. Ask them why and revise.

How to Know Which Type of Instructions to Create

If you have the time and the budget, you should make video, image and written instructions available. If this is not possible, then make your written instructions as visual as possible.

Where to Put Your Instructions

A natural home for instructions is your website and your social media channels, but you should also be posting video instructions on popular video hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo (and others in your own vertical market). Post written instructions on sites like Instructables and eHow. Make your instructions the most prevalent instructions online.

You may find that fans or users of your product have also posted their instructions for your product. Don’t compete with these people. You should share links to their work and congratulate them on their efforts. You should also consider asking them to participate in Beta programs as you move forward with your products. If someone takes the time to demonstrate your product, it means they are an ally. Involve them.

Updating Your Instructions

It might seem like instructions are the types of things to put online and forget, but as you get feedback from bloggers, press and fans, you should update the instructions to reflect the credible feedback you receive. If your users call something by a different name than you do internally, acknowledge that.

Instructions are often seen as a necessary evil by companies and are often unclear as a result. Unfortunately, if you don’t treat instructions as a vital piece of communication between you and your customers, they might not be able to understand why your product is as good as or better than your competition. Good instructions can even mitigate the need for support when customers get frustrated. It’s important to maintain the point of view of a person who has never seen or used your product when putting instructions together and post them everywhere.

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