The Best User Manuals EVER

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🗓️ Publish Date
March 1, 2007
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We say users won't RTFM, but they do. Just not the one that comes with the product. Personally, I hope companies don't listen to me about making better end-user docs, support, and online help. If y'all made better FMs, I'd be out of a job... along with all the other third-party tech authors and training providers. David Pogue's worst nightmare is that all those Missing Manuals will be found. Until more companies recognize the value (yes, even ROI) of helping their users kick ass, there's an opportunity for the rest of us to help fill in the gaps. But this post describes a company that actually charges its users big money for high-quality learning materials, and people are thrilled to pay it.

User Documentation Users Pay For

Parelli Natural Horsemanship sells horse-related products including saddles, bridles, ropes, etc. But you have to pay more to learn how to use them properly. Much, much more. Users are paying anywhere from $200 to $1000 for home-study kits including booklets and DVDs. Yes, horse training is not the same as using a project management app--clearly the markets and context are different--but the main point is the same--people place an extremely high value on quality learning and support materials. And I'd rather see a company make top-quality manuals and charge extra, than turn out the after-thought-barely-functional docs that ship with most products today (or are posted online for most web apps).

(I believe the better approach would be to NOT charge, and exploit end-user training as a competitive advantage--remember, all things being equal, he who gets his users past the suck threshold and into the kick-ass zone the fastest wins.

FYI: Parelli has one of the largest, most loyal passionate fan bases I've ever seen (and it's what finally motivated me to get back into horses). There are unofficial fan clubs and user groups worldwide, including over 1500 local members just in the little part of Colorado I live in. Parelli is one of the best possible case studies for Creating Passionate Users.

[Note: long post, but you can skip the text and get 90% of it from the pictures.]

Characteristics of World-Class User Learning Materials

1) User-friendlyEasy to use when, where, and how you need it.

2) Based on sound learning principlesi.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.

3) MotivationalKeeps users willing to push forward to higher "levels"

The following pictures are some examples of how Parelli does this. The only thing you need to know to understand the examples is that the Parelli system groups a set of skills and knowledge into "levels". Founder/creator Pat Parelli designed levels into his program based on the success of the martial arts belt system and video game levels. In other words, he knew that the levels --key achievement milestones with clear rewards--are more motivating than just, "here you go... keep going." In the Parelli system, the physical reward is nothing more than a paper certificate and piece of colored string. But the mental and emotional reward is enough to keep people sticking with it and--paying more money for additional training materials (including, sometimes, live courses).

Everything here could be used as a model (with modifications for a different audience, obviously) for building brilliant, motivating, passion-inspiring user learning regardless of the product or service. (And regardless of whether its a physical product or web application.)

Task-based Pocket Guide "job aids" with context-dependent tips, pitfalls, and troubleshooting


Typical user docs are reference. If users are lucky, they might also get a tutorial or "getting started" guide. Some user manuals include "job aids"--in other words, things the user can use just-in-time on the job, but in software, these are nearly always "cheat sheet" cards with keyboard shortcuts rather than "here's how to do this specific thing..."

The Parelli system assumes you can't take a frickin' manual out to the arena with you, so they give you small guides that literally fit into your pocket, so you can use them in real life on the job. But even in software, why assume that it's easy for users to have a big manual beside their desk? Why not a smaller series of booklets based around specific sets of tasks an end-user might want to do?

More importantly, the guides group the problems you might hit in a particular task right there with the instruction for that task. Forcing a user to go to a separate "Troubleshooting" section of FAQ list is just...wrong. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have those separate sections, but you should duplicate pitfalls and problems and include them in just-in-time job aids (physical or online).

Context-sensitive FAQs--done right--can make a dramatic difference in software, and greatly reduce the user's cognitive load.

Motivational bridge between levels


Each "level" includes a preview book from the next level, even color-coded to the new level, that helps motivate and prepare you for moving up. The assumption--and message to the user--is, "Congratulations! You finished level one! Now look at the cool things you'll be able to do in level two, and... let's get started." The motivating message is, "You can't stop now... you have all these new tools and NOW you'll be able to put them to use in these reallly interesting ways..."

In other words, they help the user map their level one skills to things they can now use to get new benefits (but only if they keep going into level two).

Skill/Savvy-based "Reminder Aids"


While level one is about completing


-- the user is just trying to get something done correctly and safely--level


is about improving overall skill and knowledge. In Parelli, level two is more about doing things well

regardless of the actual task


For a software app, this could be general reminders and tips. For a programmer, this might be design patterns and best-practice idioms, etc.

In the Parelli level two, you get a big pile of these cards, and you can customize your caribiner (hooked to your belt loop) each day with the things you want to remember, as well as tasks for that day. Each card includes a reference pointer for getting more info (which chapter of the DVD or section of the manual, etc.)

Motivational Progress Map


The best way to keep someone on track is to do two things:1) Show them how far they've come2) Show them where they can go next

The Parelli system has three different types of progress charts:

Level ONEYou get a wall poster checklist that lets you see the entire set of skills for this level, and over the 30-90 days they expect it will take, you can continue to check these off. The checklists are color-coded, too, so the "bridge" items from the level two sneak peak are in blue, rather than the level one red color.

Level TWOAlthough I didn't show it (mine's at the barn), the level two progress map is much cooler than a simple checklist. In level two, you can take the cards that are on the caribiner and place them in a big fold-out map--that has slots--which you move across depending on where you are with that particular task. For example, in "riding without a bridle", I might start with that card in "just starting" and then as I progress move it into the "working on it" slot, and so on. It gives you a clear visual in one glance for where you are in the entire level two program (which is much more involved than the simple tasks of level one).

The Parelli Official User GroupIf you join the monthly-fee official Parelli Savvy Club, you get a "passport" -- a booklet that lists accomplishments from the first three levels, with color-coded stickers to place on those tasks or capabilities as you complete them. Flipping through this booklet is another easy way to see where you are, and it's very motivating to want to keep checking off those tasks (in this case, by writing the dates and placing the stickers).

Motivational Practice Game


This learning game costs users an extra $100... and they're happy to pay it! Besides giving you a zillion practice tips and tricks, the game encourages you to get others involved. And as we know from reverse-engineering passion, the more people connect and engage with others around this activity, the more likely it is to lead to (or reinforce) a passion for that activity.

Bottom line: never underestimate the value of providing fabulous training materials in getting--and keeping--users motivated to get better. And the better they are, the more likely they are to appreciate (and buy) your higher-end versions, evangelize, buy and create accessories, etc.

And remember--if you view these pictures as examples of typical user manuals, they look absurd. But if they were marketing materials for the same product... they might not look so strange. Think about that. (And re-read my previous post on the great gulf between before-and-after the customer pays for something.)

Just imagine... what would it be like if you had learning materials like that? Not in the budget? Charge extra. Why not? Look how much money O'Reilly, Wiley, Prentice-Hall, etc. are making thanks to all the missing/useless/painful docs. Better yet, be the first in your market to blow minds with world-class user learning materials. How long will it take before the companies that do this can start slashing their marketing budgets...