Style Files: Writing for End-Users


If you work in a technical field, or any other field that’s innately complex and uses a lot of jargon, it can be difficult to create communication pieces for non-technical people.

Process descriptions, operating instructions, user manuals — they’re all hard to pull off. But over the years, I’ve come up with some pretty simple tips that can help make things a little more clear to end-users.

 Tip 1: Put Your Brain Away

When you’re writing for end-users, you’re going to struggle with something known as “the burden of knowledge.” You know exactly how to do something, or how something works. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have been asked to write about it.

But once you know something, it’s hard to un-know it. And that makes writing very simply about a topic pretty hard — which is unfortunate, because in most cases, users need the most simplified version of instructions you can imagine. (I’m not kidding — I once had to write instructions for the use of a video conferencing system that included the step, “Make sure the video monitor is turned on.”)

In order to write that simply, you’ll need to put your brain away. As in, metaphorically stick it in a drawer, lock the drawer and walk away. Then sit down and write out the process from the very beginning.


Tip 2: Use Smaller Words and Shorter Sentences

I hate jargon. I am convinced it was invented by people who wanted to feel/sound smarter than they actually were. And I find that there’s very little room for it in anything you’re writing for end-users. Keep things easy to follow by breaking down any word that feels like jargon into a simpler term or idea.

For instance, it’s not a “user interface” it’s a “touchscreen.” Likewise, users aren’t “authenticating credentials,” they’re “logging in.” In other words, think about what the jargon word would mean to them, and use that description instead.

Also, try keep sentences to one clause apiece. When dealing with unfamiliar information, our brains need a little more time to understand what’s being read. Short, simple sentences offer readers the ability to make sense of one idea before moving on to the next.

Tip 3: Be Consistent

When you’re writing end-user guides, you’ll find that lots of words are easily interchangeable. But just because you can say something in more than one way doesn’t mean you should. In fact, using different words will likely cause confusion.

It’s either a “monitor,” or a “screen,” or a “display.” It’s not all three, especially in one document. And it’s either a “dongle” or an “adapter” — pick one and stick to it. (I’d personally go with adapter. Partly because I hate the word dongle, and partly because I feel like the word adapter is more widely understood.)


Tip 4: Anticipate Wrong Turns

Where in the process could things go wrong for the end-user? What information would help avoid this misstep? Find a way to work that in somewhere. (Hint: This kind of information usually fits well into a “Before You Start” section.)

Tip 5: Direct Them to More Help

Most of the time, if you’ve written them simply enough, an end-user will get through your document without a problem. But no matter what you do, there will always be a handful of folks who just don’t get it. So make sure you end your piece with information on where to go for more help, whether it’s a phone number, email, website, or all of the above. It’s not so much admitting defeat as it is providing comprehensive customer service.



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