The Personable Manual

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Why do product manuals sound formal and stiff-upper-lipped? Why don’t users read manuals? These questions have haunted the hallowed precincts of Technical Writing for quite some time now. From what I have seen in Indian writers, I am forced to conclude that English Composition, as we were taught in school, is the culprit. Our merit was based on how verbose we were. They judged our style based on how ‘formal’ we were.

Take for example, the leave letter. I am sure you have written a few in school or college. Rewind and replay one of those leave letters. Right from the salutation (‘Respected sir/madam’) to the signature (‘Faithfully/Obediently yours’) it reeks of colonialism. And, we have yet to learn our lessons. In this age of globalization (or globalisation, to my stiff-upper-lip comrades), it is important to pay attention to the three Cs: Consistency, Context, and Culture.

The You
I have read manuals that say ‘you can perform this task…’ and in the next chapter add, ‘Users should back up data regularly’. Who is the ‘you’ and who is the ‘user’? Quite a few of my esteemed friends that are Technical Writers shy away from using ‘you’ in their manuals. Again, it is that skeleton in our cupboards (or closets, if you will, my American friend) called Colonial Composition that proves to be the stumbling block. I do not wish to debate on the aesthetic merit of using (or not using) ‘you’ in our manuals. The goal of your manual is to help users be productive. So let us stick to that story for now.

Let us look at an example:
1) If the system displays a blue screen, the OS should re-installed.
2) If your system displays a blue screen, re-install the OS.

Let us not discuss active and passive voice. Let us focus on the word ‘your’ that replaces ‘the’. Both statements offer the same instruction. If you took a poll with your users on which one they liked. I am quite sure they’d pick the one with ‘your’. Why? Because it is personable. The statement is talking to the user and thus telling the user ‘there’s something in it for you’ and urges action. There is no ambiguity (‘OS should be installed? By who?’). And, the ‘your’ statement costs less to Localize.

Also, it is important that your product offers a favorable emotional experience to your users. That is where the Colonial Composition fails. Ask any Interaction Designer and she’ll tell you how important Subjective Satisfaction is to the success of any design.

Personable Manual
Personable writing pays. What would you prefer to read?

“It is recommended that you upgrade your software.”


“We recommend that you upgrade your software.”

The latter engages you. It makes a convincing statement. It doesn’t hide behind the facade of passive voice, and it puts an arm around you and requests, like a friend, to do the needful.

There again, some of you might say ‘well, if we screw up, then because we used ‘we’ we may get into a soup.

Let me reassure you here: 1) you don’t write for a contingency called screw-up. 2) You write to ensure your user increases her productivity. And 3) Whether you write in passive voice or active voice, if it is in the manual, you are liable.

Finally, being formal is overrated. Just because you are in business does not meant you have to be business-like in your manual. That is a sad misconception. You got to connect. You have to converse with your user. You need to engage and offer a positive emotional experience to your user. Else, the user will pick that phone and call Support. Now, that, in my book, completely obviates the need for publishing a manual. And, having a writer on board.

Write to me: Sumank[at]gmail[dot]com

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  1. There’s one aspect that you seem to miss: credibility.

    Like it or not, people do react to the way you look, the way you talk, the way you write, etc, etc, etc.

    In my country (Portugal) these experiments are discussed over and over. We are a society that gives too much credit to the name/rank instead of real value of what people do or think. I remember one tv show that picked up a complete hobo, took him as he was to a shop and a restaurant and after that they shaved him, bath him, dressed him a fancy suit and took him again to the same shop and restaurant.
    Needless to say – having not recognized the man was the same – treatment and respect were two worlds apart.

    What has this to do with your subject (writing manuals)? When you try to become coloquial with your marketing targets, beware if you are transmiting an image of a lesser professional, because people could interpret your “at will” attitude with “he doesn’t know better than this”.

    I rest my case. 🙂


  2. Monsal, I see your point but I never said we should be ‘casual’ or flippant in our manuals. I only said we can’t be too formal. And that we can use the words ‘we’ and ‘you’. I am not talking extremes here.

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