What is an Instruction Manual?
By Douglas Krantz
Explaining the method used to accomplish a project, an instruction manual is a one-way communication.
The instructions can explain how to mount a picture frame; the instructions can explain how to operate the food blender; the instructions can explain how to fix a broken motorcycle; the instructions can even explain how to manually run a space station.
Always though, an instruction manual is the communication provided by someone who knows how a project should be done to someone who needs to know how to do it.
Few people ever read a manual cover-to-cover. To many people, referring to the manual is thought-of as the last resort. On the other hand, especially when the project is very complicated or dangerous. The instructions referred to in the manual are the first thing sought by the user.
Depending on what information is needed, though, each user will read different sections of a manual. The reader will use the manual:
- For how-to assemble instructions
- For general information
- As a theory of operation
- For operating procedures
- For a system summary
- As a technical repair reference
- As a specification reference
- As a safety precaution
- As a parts source
- As a checklist
- As a list of requirements
- As a list of permissions
- For training instructions
- To answer frequently asked questions
- For information about capabilities
- For reporting and documentation forms
- For legal notices
Because what the user is going to read is never known, most instruction manuals include many of these sections.
Each person using an instruction manual has different background knowledge so a manual has to be written to a varied audience:
- Those that don't know
- Those that don't know they don't know
- Those who need some help understanding
- Those who are just interested
- Those who just need the confidence
A manual should contain more than one explanation because each person reading the manual gains understanding through different channels of learning:
- To understand, one person may need diagrams
- To understand, one person may need pictures
- To understand, one person may need step-by-step instructions
- To understand, one person may need an essay explaining the steps
To some people, how to accomplish a project is intuitive; other people need some explanation. Background knowledge may be all that's needed; then again, background knowledge may not be sufficient. Some people just need an exploded view; some people need to be told in words.
If the project is complicated, the more methods of showing how to get the job done, the greater number of people will understand.
The Manual Bottom Line
Being given from someone that knows to someone that doesn't know, a manual is a set of instructions explaining how to accomplish something.