The Technical Manual: Instructions for Life or for a Video Game?
Deconstructing the Technical Manual: What Is It?
A technical manual rarely provides guidance on how you should live your life. It does not tell you how to raise your kids but can help you understand their video console game. Some technical manuals do this successfully, some don’t. Definitions of a technical manual are as varied as the types of technical manuals.
A publication containing detailed information on technical procedures, including instructions on the operation, handling, maintenance, and repair of equipment. – McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Technical manuals are written for end users who did not code or create the product or process. While they might have some knowledge of how the product or process works, they need more detailed information. This could be in the form of a product brochure or detailed operating instructions or repair procedures. Most of this audience simply wants more information on topics such as the product, how to install or operate it or how to repair it.
Over time, the definition of a technical manual has broadened to include many aspects of technical documentation. It has the simple purpose of making it simple for the end-user to understand the technicality of using a product or service. Technical manuals contain instructions for installation, use, maintenance, and steps for effective deployment of equipment.
Avoiding the Technobabble Snafu
Technical Manual Sample
Some Assembly Required
Your product or user manual may need to have the words Some Assembly Required in it. Since those words often make readers cringe, it would be a pleasant surprise if the manual were written in Simplified Technical English that virtually anyone can understand.
Products made in the Republic of SAR (Some Assembly Required) can make the reader afraid of the assembly experience to come. They are already wondering if they should have gotten an engineering degree so that they could put the product together. They may also be wondering why they wanted it in the first place.
When you begin to write your manual, you have a choice: You can write it for those that do have an engineering degree or one in computer science or you can write your manual so it is easily understood by your intended audience.
Technical manuals are written for end users who did not code or create the product or process. While they might have some knowledge of how the product or process works, they need more detailed information. This could be in the form of a product brochure or detailed operating instructions or repair procedures. Most of this audience simply wants more information on topics such as the product, how to install or operate it or how to maintain and repair it. The technobabble snafu can be avoided when technical documentation is clear, presented in engaging form and unambiguous enough to be thoroughly understood by anyone in the target audience.
When they were first created, technical manuals were in fact way too technical for the common user to comprehend.
The Technical Manual Then (1949) and Now (2022)
Technical Manuals 1949 and 2022
In 1949, the first technical technical manual was published by Joseph Chapline, who wrote a user manual for the computer he developed, the BINAC, (Operating and Maintenance Manual for the BINAC). Style and content are shown in the image at left. Technical manual content and delivery technology, not even imagined in 1949, can now be part of an end-user experience.
Technical Manual Content and Delivery
Technology has changed and with it the content, design and delivery of technical documentation has changed.
Technical Manual Content
- Customer-Centric Technical Content might include online wikis, knowledge bases, training manuals, user guides, release notes, installation manuals, or repair manuals.
- Organizational Technical Content might include standard work procedures manuals, employee handbooks, job descriptions, work instructions, installation manuals, or a human machine interface (HMI) on equipment.
- Marketing Technical Content might include product-based information such as product brochures or videos, white papers, business case studies, infographics, or use cases.
- IT Technical Content might include technical specifications of a product, glossaries, software development , software guidance, training manuals, or process documentation
Technical Information Delivery
Digitalization and globalization have resulted in a paradigm shift in how technical documentation is created, how it is written and how it is delivered.
As technology has become available to a broad cross-section of the population, creating and delivering easily-understood technical content is a requirement. It also must be delivered in many different languages. While not in the immediate future, the PDF may become obsolete in favor of electronic delivery. For now, however, both are still used extensively.
Digital information delivery–in particular mobile–is becoming a standard method for relaying information. Innovative solutions for doing this are being created all the time and are more focused on user experience than ever before.
The Technical Manual in its Simplest Form
A Wordless Manual
A Successful Technical Manual: the IKEA Billy Bookcase Assembly Manual.
If it takes an advanced degree to read it, then it must be meaningful. Right? Not necessarily. Einstein suggested that:
“If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough.”
You cannot get much simpler than a wordless manual and one of the most effective set of technical manuals is in fact wordless: the IKEA assembly manuals. There are few complaints that IKEA’s technical manuals are not easily understood or that furniture cannot be assembled when they are used.
While there are not many types of manuals that lend themselves to wordless instruction, it does work for IKEA.
Technical Manual Considerations
Whether the technical manual is a human machine interface (HMI) on a CNC machine or the installation instructions for a garbage disposal, there are certain basic planning and content elements that are common to all.
Topic-based authoring is a concept well worth considering for development of technical documentation. This approach is particularly suited to technical manuals. The alternative, a collaborative approach, works well in most situations. It just so happens that topic-based authoring enables writers of technical material to create reusable, flexible information modules cost-effectively.
Select Pre-Development Questions
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the delivery method electronic or print?
- Will the development approach be collaborative or topic-based authoring?
- Where is the information about the product, service or process located?
- Who will be the subject matter expert–the writer or a staff member or both?
- What is the structure–table of contents?
- What graphics will be used?
- How will the contents be laid out?
- What will be the style and design?
If you understand thoroughly what you are writing about, you will be able to present it in clear, concise, unambiguous terms to readers.
This is a modular approach to content creation which supports content reuse, content management, and the dynamic assembly of personalized information.
At a high level, topic-based authoring is simple. Rather than writing a “book” as one long document, you write a bunch of small chunks of information – “topics” – that can be strung together to create that “book”. – Neil Perlin
Collaborative authoring is a method of creating content with the involvement of several authors. It is a flexible process where content can be created more quickly and with better quality. Technical writers can create content simultaneously: each tech writer is working on certain topics. Technical writers can also create content in a certain sequence.
Case study sample of a Simplified Technical English (STE) conversion intended to remove the archaic wording and make the text easier to translate and understand. The transformation resulted in reduced cost and better translations.
The Simplicity of an Effective Technical Manual
“Complex technical instructions can be misunderstood and misunderstandings can lead to accidents. STE makes technical texts easy to understand by all readers“
Simplified Technical English Transformation
Simplicity is arguably one of the most desirable traits of an effective technical manual. Simplified Technical English may be what you need if your document has a wide, diverse audience.
Creating Technical Manuals in Simplified Technical English (STE)
Einstein would have liked STE and the STE Writing Rules. He knew that clarity is often sacrificed for complexity. But he also knew that there is a limit to how far things can be simplified. STE Writing Rules show how to use those rules to make what we write as simple as possible but no simpler.
If it takes an advanced degree to read it, then it must be meaningful. Right? Not necessarily. Einstein suggested:
“If you cannot explain it simply, you do not understand it well enough.”
Einstein could not have anticipated the technological innovation or medical advancements or discoveries in physics that have occurred in the last century. Technical documentation of QuickBooks’ coding in C++ will likely be important information for a programmer. But a technical description of how to use QuickBooks to generate a profit and loss statement is likely to be much more important to an end user who may have no idea what C++ is or that it is a programming language.
Why Work With Us?
We are creative, believers in critical thought. Our technical documentation layouts are sophisticated and appropriate, effective. Our work is informative and engaging. We become subject matter expert partners: our technical writing services save you time, money, revisions and failed presentations.