Writing a Technical Training Manual

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Technical training manuals teach how different parts of a technology work together.
Technical training manuals teach how different parts of a technology work together. (Image: woman with computer in the office image by Oleg Berlov from <a href='http://www.fotolia.com'>Fotolia.com</a>)

If you've been charged with the task of writing a training manual for your company's staff or you're designing educational materials for a product sold by your organization, it's important to recognize the difference between technical user guides and technical training manuels. While user guides teach tasks one at a time, students generally work through training manuals from beginning to end, moving on to more advanced lessons as they grasp basic concepts. Write your training manual to foster holistic understanding of the technology and its uses, rather than encouraging users to learn a number of unrelated tasks.

Research your audience and their comfort level with technology. Obviously, a technical training manual designed for a group of librarians in their 40s and 50s would be much different than training developed for recent graduates of a computer science program. Your audience's familiarity with technology will affect the language you use and the very structure of your manual's curriculum. For example, if you're writing for an audience of tech gurus, your expectation of their level of mastery after working through the manual will be higher than if you were writing for technology neophytes.

Write down the learning objectives of the training manual. Learning objectives should begin with strong action verbs. If you're writing training for web design software, for example, two learning objectives might be: 1. Understand what web design software X is used for and articulate its limitations. 2. Design a basic webpage using web design software X, including CSS style sheet formatting, text and pictures.

Outline the structure of the training manual. Decide whether you can work your learning objectives into a single project that learners build on progressively or a series of mini-projects that relate to each other at the end. A single project might be a manual teaching the different aspects of web design software to create a basic webpage. A series of projects might be based on how to use design suite software where users edit a photo, design a brochure layout and then bring the edited photo into the brochure to complete the project.

Break your training content into individual lessons. You should be able to assign a few learning objectives for each lesson that you define. Write these learning objectives in point form at the beginning of each chapter. They help users understand what they can expect and direct your writing efforts during the drafting process.

Draft your lesson chapters. Use headings to divide smaller processes within individual lessons. Try to provide just one direction per step, and begin every direction with a clear action verb. When deciding how detailed a step should be, consider your audience. When trying to decided whether to include something in a lesson or not, review the learning objectives you wrote. Only include content that helps to satisfy a learning objective.

Write lesson summaries at the end of your chapters. Include quick reference charts for concepts that learners might want to look up later. For example, if you introduce 10 new functions in a lesson, include them all in a quick reference table so that users don't have to flip through the entire chapter for a synopsis of what they learned.

Test your training manual on unbiased participants, preferably those who reflect your real-world audience. Work with one subject at a time, asking your audience to think aloud as they work through your training program. Observe their progress, taking notes as they move forward. Cathrine Whitaker, member of the Society for Technical Communication in San Diego, encourages writers to look for problems with instruction consistency, relevance and effectiveness. Ensure that your test users understand your instructions, are not paralyzed by missing details or an overabundance of information, and aren't confused by conflicting directions.

Edit your manual, consulting notes from your testing sessions as your work. Polish your spelling, grammar and sentence structure.

Tips & Warnings

  • Use a lot of pictures to help users understand your directions. If you're teaching software, screenshots are invaluable for showing users what they should do or see at specific points in the lesson.
  • If there's more than one way to do the same thing, tell users in your directions so they can choose the method that works best for them.

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