People who write user’s manuals for a living learn to accept the fact that most people, even people who use the product they are documenting, won’t spend a lot of time reading their work. For many users, the manual is something you consult only in an emergency, and only if you can remember where you put it. Technical writers write manuals that go mostly unread. It can be frustrating.
The quick start guide, however, is far more likely to get a user’s attention. It contains the information they truly want, how to get up and running as quickly and painlessly as possible. The customers want to start using the product without reading a whole manual of information they don’t know if they will ever need. Quick start guides get read.
The easiest way to learn to write a quick start guide is to find one and read it, then copy what they did. If you want some examples try these:
The basics are easy to describe. Most quick start guides have the following elements:
An introduction may or may not be labeled. Sometimes it is just a single sentence that tells what the product is. At most it should be a few paragraphs giving the general description of the product. The purpose of this is to give the user some insight into what the product does.
This is a list of what is needed in order to use the product. In the case of software, it is generally the minimum specifications of the computer on which you will install the software. For a physical product like a desk, it may detail what the user needs in order to put the desk together, such as a hammer and screwdriver.
Installation or assembly instructions
This is the step-by-step process for making the product operational. This is by far the most important section of a quick start guide and quite possibly the only section that will be read by the users. It must explain clearly and briefly each step in the process of installation or assembly. While there may be separate instructions for separate platforms (such as Mac OS, Linux or Windows), there is generally only one simple method of installation or assembly given. If the customer needs more options, they should consult the user’s manual.
This is where you tell the user how to start using the product. This is a quick start guide after all. The instruction may be simple such as “click on X to start application”. You may need to be more detailed if there are steps the user must take in order to begin using the product after installation or assembly.
Where to find more information
This is the section in which you tell the user where they need to go if the quick start isn’t enough. You may direct them to a user’s guide, reference chart, web site or to a phone number. Include any source that the user may need.
For the most part, a quick start guide is just that simple. Some companies may include extra information, but you must be careful not to overload the quick-start with things that rightfully belong in the user’s manual. A quick start is simply for getting the customer up and running as quickly as possible. The exception to this rule is if the company chooses not to include a full user’s manual. In that case, you may need to give more information in the quick start guide so that users have what they need.