Technical Instruction Content: Best Practices for Designing Clear Guides

May 2, 2024
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Powerful products require knowledge of how to use them effectively. Technical instructions help users gain this knowledge as opposed to requiring them to “figure it out.” Not having clear, easy-to-understand technical instruction content leads to frustrated users and has the potential to drive them to look for an alternative product. You don’t want that to happen.

A lot of effort goes into creating highly useful technical instructions, and we’ll discuss the process of creating this content, including the challenges and best practices. We’ll also discuss the tools—particularly the component content management system (CCMS)—that help you create, manage, and distribute this content to your customers, partners, and employees.

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First, A Definition of Technical Instruction Content

A clear definition is required before we dive into the details of technical instruction content.

Technical instruction content is information that comes with your product to explain how to use it. This content helps users operate equipment safely, set up new systems properly, and speed up user onboarding. It can also help you avoid liability due to improper use. Creating clear, concise, and useful technical instructions improves the customer experience and reduces the number of customer support calls your team deals with.

This type of content can include:

  • Step-by-step instructions
  • Troubleshooting tips
  • How to – for specific use cases
  • Installation, setup, and maintenance information
  • Warnings for use

Technical instruction content is delivered in many different assets, such as:

  • Product Manuals
  • Repair manuals
  • Troubleshooting guides
  • User manuals
  • API Documentation
  • Knowledgebase articles
  • Elearning systems
  • Policies and Procedures

We often talk about technical content for software products, such as user guides for accounting software or troubleshooting guides for a new SaaS application. But technical instruction content is also very important in industries such as manufacturing and medical technologies.

For example, a pharmaceutical company uses laboratory equipment like blood analyzers and DNA sequencers. Understanding how to use this equipment properly is critical when it is helping researchers and doctors diagnose a patient’s illness or perform scientific research that could help cure cancer. If the machines used for this work aren’t operating correctly or are misused, serious incidents could lead to a patient dying or a critical finding being missed.

Powin is a leading provider of grid-scale renewal storage solutions and creates maintenance manuals that include how-to and troubleshooting information to help customers maintain their systems.

The same is true for other manufacturing companies. Think about airplane parts like turbo engines, flight instruments, and communication equipment. This equipment requires training to learn how to use it, guides to install and troubleshoot problems, and maintenance guides to ensure they continue to work properly.

Best Practices for Technical Instruction Content

You have to give a hand to technical writers who create technical instruction content. It’s not a simple task. A lot of thought and planning goes into the creation of this content before the first word is even written. What follows are some best practices for writing technical instruction content.

Know Your Audience

Understanding the audience for your content is the first and most important step in developing technical content. Are they end users? Maintenance teams? Are they highly technical? Where do they access their technical documentation?

When planning your instructional content, you must think about your audience. Everything from the language you use, the length of the instructions, the complexity of the content, and the publishing channels you use are impacted by your audience.

One suggestion is to create personas for each type of instructional content you need to create to ensure your technical writers keep that persona in mind as they write content.

Keep Your Language Clear and Concise

Instructional content must be clear and concise for a number of reasons. First, clear and concise information reduces cognitive load and supports quick assimilation. In other words, users can more easily understand and follow the instructions. You want them to quickly grasp the main points and implement steps without confusion or needing additional explanation.

Clear technical instructions also reduce the likelihood of misinterpretation and increase efficiency by helping users accomplish their tasks more quickly. The longer a user has to take reading lengthy explanations or trying to decipher complex instructions, the longer it will take to get a product in place or fixed. If multiple people or teams are involved in an implementation or maintenance task, this clarity is vital to ensure everyone is on the same page.

We mentioned policies and procedures as a type of technical instruction content. Compliance with regulations and standards plays a vital role in the need for clear and concise instructions with this type of content. No company wants to be liable for not adhering to regulations and face fines.

The last reason we’ll mention for clear and concise language and instructions is the user experience. Users are more likely to have a positive experience with a product or piece of equipment when the instructions are clear and easy to follow. Concise information helps boost user adoption and satisfaction. Poor adoption and unhappy users often lead a company to stop using a product for one that is easier to use.

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Leverage Visuals and Multimedia

Text is often the first thing you think about when creating technical instruction content. However, adding visual aids such as images, diagrams, screenshots, videos, and animations enhances usability and helps users grasp the text-based instruction better.

Visual content is not a replacement for text-based content, however. People learn in different ways, and you should provide options for them to choose the content type that works best for them. Some prefer text-based content with images, while others prefer video tutorials and animations.

However, never place an image or a video standalone with no context. Always integrate visual and multimedia content with text where it will be most beneficial, clearly explaining its purpose and including captions describing it.

6 Additional Tips for Better Instructional Content

We could go on and on about best practices for writing technical instructional content, but we’ll end with these six final tips.

  1. Chunk up your content for easy reading. Think micro-content, where each module focuses on only one objective. For example, provide a set of steps to add a product to a network. Create another module or component to add new users to a system. Keep it simple.
  2. Use conversational language. The recommendation is to write to a grade 7 or 8 reading level. Big words and fancy terms make content harder to read because users must stop and think about what you are saying.
  3. Be consistent with the terms and language you use. Create a commonly used terms section, but don’t force the user to go to that section when introducing a new term. Explain it in the text, and add it to your terms section for reference. And use that term consistently across all your instructional content.
  4. Avoid jargon. Your customers or partners don’t necessarily understand industry jargon, so using it in your instructional content often frustrates users and slows the learning process.
  5. Use examples. If you describe a series of steps, include a workflow visual showing how to move through them. You can also include a video that slowly walks the user through the steps.
  6. Think reuse. We’ll explore this topic further in a future section, but for now, as you plan your technical instructional content, note the content that is the same across the different content assets you create. When we discuss technology, you’ll see how content reuse can help you create content more consistently and faster.

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Standards for eLearning Content

Before we talk about technology, there’s another way you can use technical instructional content – eLearning. All the content you create for installation guides, user guides, and so on can also support your learning objectives. When you reuse content from documentation within your elearning material, you ensure that the content is consistent and accurate across all your instructional content.

eLearning content is typically written following the SCORM (sharable content object reference model) framework. SCORM is the industry standard for learning management systems (LMS). It isn’t a standard strictly; it provides guidelines for developers to construct LMS and training content that can work with other systems that create e-learning content.

For example, the shareable content object is the most granular piece of training, such as a module, chapter, or page. This small piece of content is standalone and reusable—remember that reuse plan we mentioned above? It’s important in this context as well.

Using a CCMS for Technical Instruction Content

Technical writers need a place to create and manage technical instruction content. And there is no better technology to support that need than a component content management system (CCMS). Sure, other content management systems could help, but they don’t provide the unique capabilities you get in a CCMS that will reduce the work writers and editors need to do and ensure your content is consistent and accurate across all publishing channels.

A CCMS is a single-source solution for all your training content. Regardless of audience, publishing format, or channel, you can manage all your content in one place, modify it for different audiences or publishing layouts, and provide a central location where everyone can collaborate to create the best content.

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Benefits of a CCMS for Instructional Content

To understand the benefits of a CCMS for instructional content, you need to know about its capabilities. So, let’s look at some key ways a CCMS helps you create consistent, accurate, and secure content.

First, let’s address reusability. A CCMS supports a structured content model, which is a framework for organizing, managing, and presenting content in a consistent, modular way. It defines the structure, types, and relationships of content components. When you build this content model, you build your content for reusability.

Reusability means you can create a piece of content once and reuse it in multiple locations (or content assets). For example, you can create a component that describes the steps to add a new user to an application and then reuse that component in an Administration guide and a User guide.

When your technical writers have to create different guides with a lot of the same content, they need to be able to reuse that content instead of writing it from scratch every time.

This is even more important when you have different writers or teams of writers working on documentation. Typically, each team will go off and write their instructional content, leaving you with multiple versions of much of the same information. Bringing these teams together in a central location where they can not only write their content but reuse content others have already written, speeds up the content development process and ensures the instructions are consistent across documentation types. Also, a CCMS allows other team members, such as subject matter experts, to review, comment, and approve content before publication.

A CCMS provides version control, which enables you to manage multiple versions of your instructional content. If changes are coming to your product and you need to make changes to an installation guide, you create a branch of your existing guide and work on the updates. Once the product is live, you can merge the branch to the main version and have the installation guide provide the new instructions.

With version control, you can also roll back changes and see who has changed the content and when.

Another capability of a CCMS is translation and localization. If you are a global company that is required to create instructional content in multiple languages, your CCMS tracks the translated content against the original language. When the original language is updated, a workflow process that also updates the translations can kick off. In addition, sometimes, you have to make minor changes to the content to support localization. A CCMS allows you to make these changes using variables, so you have one version of the content that, when published, delivers the localized version you define.

Finally (although there is so much more to a CCMS), let’s talk about publishing your content. You may be required to publish PDF versions of your guides. You may also want to publish the content to a support website or a customer portal (think Zendesk, FluidTopics, or Salesforce Knowledge). And you might want to publish your content to an LMS. A component content management system lets you define the publishing channels, create PDF, HTML5, or SCORM layouts, and publish your content. Using filtering and variables, you can adjust the published output (e.g., publish the Spanish version of your user guide first).

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Tips for Creating Technical Instruction Content Using a CCMS

We’ve explained why a CCMS helps create and manage instructional content. Now, let’s look at a few key tips or best practices for using it.

Plan Your Content Carefully

As you start to identify all the types of instructional content you need to create, look for overlaps in content. Think about how you can break down the content into components or procedures to enable its reuse across courses and documentation assets. Modularity is not always straightforward; you need to break it down in ways that do not result in a loss of context or coherence.

At the same time, you need to consider the images, animations, and other multimedia you will use and how to best manage those in your CCMS.

The first step should be developing a solid content strategy for instructional content. This strategy should involve developing a structured content model and seeking reuse opportunities. It should also include creating a solid taxonomy (for both text-based content and images) to make it easier for your technical writers to find the content they need for their work.

Finally, look for places where variables and filters can be incorporated into your content to further increase its reusability.

Define Content Review and Approval Workflows

Establish clear workflows for content review and approval to maintain quality and consistency. Take advantage of any assignments or project management capabilities in the CCMS to track who is writing what content, reviewing it, and editing and approving it. This includes external contributors who will need to review content for accuracy.

Define roles and responsibilities and use automated notifications to keep stakeholders informed throughout the review process.

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Comply with Accessibility Guidelines

Depending on where you publish your instructional content, it may need to meet accessibility standards such as WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) to accommodate users with disabilities. Define any requirements in your content strategy to incorporate accessibility features such as alt text for images and proper heading structure, among other accessibility guidelines.

Manage Visuals and Multimedia

Visual content is essential to instructional content, so it’s important to manage it properly in your CCMS. Jo Lam, Product Operations Manager at Paligo, shared a common challenge related to managing images for instructional content:

“There’s a couple of common mistakes that people make, and a lot of the time they’re largely based on their previous understanding of how image or media management works. For example, if you’re used to working with Word or Confluence, those use very manual processes for image handling. But if you approach a CCMS using those same manual processes, you’re going to end up with a lot of duplications and disorder.”

A common mistake when using images in a CCMS is uploading standalone versions of each image, including translated versions. There is no relationship connecting these images together. When an image needs to be updated, a new copy is uploaded, and writers need to manually adjust the content to point to the new image.

There is a much better way to do image management, and it requires thinking about versioning images the same way you think of versioning your content. You upload your image, create language variations for that image, and variable sets if the image is different in different situations. When you need to update an image, you replace the current version, not upload a new one. This eliminates the need to manually update images in the content and decreases the amount of images stored in your CCMS that are no longer used.

“When thinking about how to manage your images, my advice is to look at them in the same way ‌you do your textual content. In other words, do the content audit (analysis), do the content plan, and figure out where those common points are for the media. You need to be very strategic and systematic before you start putting text and images into a CCMS.”

Create Interactive Quizzes for eLearning

Some CCMSs support creating interactive quizzes and assessments as part of your eLearning content (the Paligo CCMS does this). You create your course modules as components, then create the quiz or assessment and package it all together to export it as SCORM. From there, you can import it into your LMS system, and the LMS can track and monitor the completion of the quizzes and assessments.

Keep Your Content Secure

Depending on the type of instructional content you create, you may be dealing with sensitive information or proprietary knowledge that needs to be protected from unauthorized access or misuse.

Your CCMS should have robust security management to ensure the content you create and manage is secure, confidential, and accessible only to those who need it. Once published, it’s up to the publishing channels to ensure the information’s security.

Ready to Get Started?

In this in-depth guide to creating technical instruction content, we’ve given you a lot to think about and plan for. From how to get started to how to leverage a CCMS’s reuse capabilities, there’s a lot to unpack and consider. If you need any help or are looking for further information, reach out. The team is ready to talk.