RTFM! Users Won’t Read Your Documentation, Here’s A Better Approach

Michelle Mac
3 min readJul 18, 2022

It’s easy to be optimistic when writing detailed documentation for your product. You want to make sure there’s a wealth of knowledge in your user manual anyone can search for and find.

The sad reality is that nobody reads the user guides.

Instead of putting all your effort into perfect user guides, you should reduce the need for a user to refer to the documentation in the first place.

Here’s the why and the how:

The Pros Of Documentation:

  • Online documentation is easily searchable.
  • When organized right, it’s easy to find what you’re looking for.
  • Something like Apple’s HIG is a fascinating resource to learn from.

The Cons Of Documentation:

  • It takes you away from using the product.
  • The act of searching for a solution to your problem is too much friction for most users.
  • If a user can’t solve their problem they’ll leave your product and find another one.

How To Reduce Dependency On Documentation:

Promote Learning By Doing

Users prefer to start using something without reading the manual. This is referred to as the paradox of the active user.

To work around this, you should break up a long sequence of actions required to complete a task into smaller chunks.

By doing this, users won’t have to wait until they’ve completed their task to see the expected results.

Allow for errors

Users will make mistakes when using your product so it’s important to account for this in your design.

Use clear error messages written in plain language, that state the problem, and offer a solution.

I wrote about how to write effective error messages in this article: UI Design Patterns — How To Write Effective Error Messages.

Provide ways for the user to skip ahead or step back easily. Make sure to include things like a back, forward, and home button…

Michelle Mac

The *heavily edited* ramblings of a technical writer & frontend dev. I write about creativity, design, and productivity. Start here: https://heymichellemac.com/