Most products present the user guide as a necessary evil if they bother to provide one for their customers at all.
But if you keep in mind the purpose of a user guide, and use topic-based authoring and a good design, the user guide can provide a foundation for your entire customer education strategy. And it doesn’t have to make you tear your hair out in the process.
A user guide is a map, not a document that will be read from cover to cover. The purpose for a software user guide is to explain screens that the user is likely to encounter and provide procedures for the tasks that they can perform. It can also include conceptual information if helpful for learning how to complete tasks. A user guide is not a training document, nor should it be used for marketing or sales. It is simply the most clear and concise explanation of what the user needs to know to get a job done, organized in such a way that the information is easy to find.
Topic-based authoring is a way of chunking information. One topic is the minimal amount of information needed to perform the given task – and only one task – with hyperlinks or cross references to point the reader to prerequisite or subsequent tasks or other related information. Conceptual information is kept separate from procedural information and usually organized before the related procedures.
There are significant advantages to writing your user guide with topic-based authoring. It creates a structure that makes it easy to navigate, for the author, subject matter experts or other reviewers and editors, and most importantly, the reader/user. But you can also easily leverage topics for other purposes, including training in person or online, tutorial video preparation, and online help/knowledge base creation.
Keep the design simple, with every design decision made to ensure that the information presented is clear and concise. Use consistent wording, capitalization, punctuation, and formatting to provide landmarks to your user for navigating the tasks. Use emphasis sparingly. I recommend bold for any button or field name the user interacts with and italics to reference screen names or other topics.
Free User Guide Template
After working with a number of companies just starting out with user guides, I've developed an easy-to-use Microsoft Word template to help with the design. (You can download it here.) It includes some common user guide features, including: