Posted on 15 Comments

User Guide vs User Manual – which is right?

Let’s say you’re setting up a new Tech Docs Dept.

You need to create new guidelines, style guides and naming conventions.

Should you call the user ‘documents’ User Guides or User Manuals?

Which one is right?

I was asked this question by a colleague in India who is setting up a Technical Publishing Dept in Bangalore.  He wants to go with user guide—me too, actually.

  1. When I worked in the UK, it was (mostly) referred to as a User Manual.
  2. Whereas in the US, it was a User Guide. I think the Americans (and me!) like things to be short and to the point. Guide is just that little bit quicker to write, especially when you’re creating MS  Word templates.

Saying that, there is no right and wrong, but I did a little fact finding first.

What Google says about User Guides

I searched Google and came up with these results.

  • 15,600,000 for “user guide”
  • 10,700,000 for “user manual”
  • 5,210,000 for “user’s guide”

What surprised me here was that User’s Guide was so widely used. I’ve always found this a bit annoying. I just don’t like apostrophes, I guess.

Top 5 Most Popular User Guides

A quick check on the most popular user guides showed the following. Not what I expected.

IBM Technical Documents

Next, I checked IBM and Microsoft  to see what term they used.

  • 15,324 for user guide
  • 1,047 for user manual

So, they prefer user guide. Though, you’d think they’d make this mandatory. Of course, it’s not easy when you have offices in every corner of the world, so let’s cut them some slack.

Microsoft prefers User Guides too

The folks are Redmond were more consistent with

  • 1.8 million for User Guides and only
  • 73k for User Manuals

And, to be fair, many of the user manuals were actually guides when I checked. Someone check that search engine!

Is Apple different?

Yes, of course.

Apple prefers the term User’s Guide. Like I said, I never bought into this. I prefer short, snappy titles. We don’t call them System Administrator’s Guide, do we?

Well, of course, some do.

Things to consider when naming your documents

  • Avoid obscure or unique terms for your documents. Use industry standard terminology.
  • Ask your target audience what they expect.
  • Create a Style Guide or adopt one, e.g. the Microsoft or IBM style guide.
  • Develop a naming convention, e.g. a structure approach so that all documents are named, filed, and indexed correctly.
  • Develop a numbering convention. Show people how to number documents, for example, when to go from 1.1  to 1.2 and when to go from 1.2 to 2.0.
  • Be consistent.
  • Be patient when they get it wrong.

My career really began to take off when I saw myself as an ‘enabler’ rather than a writer. My identity of who I was changed from a guy who cranked out docs to someone who helps others get their projects done.

People want to learn, do your best to help them get there.

What do you think? What’s the most practical way to name documents and setup a new Technical Writing Dept?

15 thoughts on “User Guide vs User Manual – which is right?

  1. It is the seemingly simple things in life that can drag you down. I am sure that I have had many conversations on this subject. A few of them possibly heated discussions. My number one takeaway is “consistency”. Consistency is king. In the long run, there is probably no perfect answer. I would bet that the average tech writer is walking into a situation of existing manuals and keeping those consistent is the #1 rule.

  2. Hi Tom,

    I've had more feedback on this than I expected (LinkedIn groups have quite a few comments on this. You can see the groups on my profile here http://www.linkedin.com/in/ivanwalsh)

    One suggestion is the guides are more for reference material whereas manuals tend to be more problem-solving, for example, your car manual.

    I still think it’s all the same in the user’s mind but many technical writers have strong opinions on this.

    No-one likes user’s guide it seems, except Apple!

  3. There might be good reasons why one title translates better than another. If I recall correctly, this was a good reason for favoring User *** over User's ***.

    (Plug both into Google translate and you'll see that User's Manual fails to translate more often.)

    Secondly, consider search engine behavior. If you want people to search for “BigProd User Guide”, do all search engines parse that string the same way as “BigProd User's Guide”? My guess would be that avoiding the apostrophe might facilitate more accurate hits.

    Note that the gramatically incorrect “users guide” garners a whopping 224,000,000 hits. Far more than the sum of the two alternates.

  4. The last comment about the “grammatically incorrect” use of “users guide” drive home something that always seems to split camps in our field. When is it OK to break grammar rules? Or should they never be broken? My opinion is that there are very specific times when it is OK to break the rules. These times should be systematic and hopefully rare.

    Due to the often heated arguments that result from this subject, I almost regret bringing the subject up. Almost!

  5. Tom,

    Your observation on the value of consistency is significant. Just break the rules consistently!

    (However, the steely glare of my grizzled old editor springs to mind.)

    Cheers.

  6. First, I offer that there can be a real difference between a guide and a manual. A “guide” might provide more information than an overview and less step-by-step detail than a quick reference, but still fall short of a complete documentation of user activities. A “manual” might provide a more comprehensive set of procedures, perhaps even a complete set of general activities, detailed steps for all tasks (or a majority of expected tasks), and –less likely– a function-by-function description of the hardware or software interfaces. Thus, some of the cited search returns should be expected. It's not merely a word choice, but an understanding of the shades of meaning behind the words.

    I'm surprised at the lack of rigor in your citation of the document names used by different companies. You don't address the possibility that, given IBM's sixteen thousand documents to choose from, some means of differentiation can be provided just with a name. It may be that IBM has chosen to provide detailed information in only 6% of its available documents. I could easily make a business case to provide a larger amount of limited information in “guides” and a smaller amount of detailed “manuals”.

    I'm also surprised at some notably incorrect usages in this posting. You might want to edit the following: “worked in the UK it was” has a pronoun with an unclear referent and a missing comma; “don’t like hyphens” should read “don’t like apostrophes”; “it’screenshots not easy” may have a bad copy-paste; you might expand what you mean by “user manuals were actually guides”; “My identify of who I was” should read “identity”; “learn, do your best” should use a semicolon.

  7. Good point.

    I thought the User Guide would be the title most users have come to expect.

    Someone corrected me and said that, for example, car’s come with User Manuals, not user guides.
    So, maybe it’s also to do with people’s expectations. I expect a guide with my shiny, new camera but a
    manual with the car.

    For the sake of simplicity, i.e. if running a tech docs dept, I’d call all the docs Guides or Manuals.
    Mixing and matching creates so many headaches.

    Strange that Apple user User’s Guide, isn’t it?

  8. Tom,

    I’m reading a book by Jeremy Clarkson (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/column…) writer for The Times in the UK and he talks (very funnily) about how writing evolves. He’s a terrific read.

    How it first changed with the Carolingian miniscule (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_minuscule) and into other writing styles.

    For example, Shakespeare signed his name 5 times (i.e. that we know of) and each was written different. So, maybe he wasn’t too hung up on grammar. Who knows.

    For me, I can never understand why we use the letter K.

    What’s the point?

    Just use C instead. We have Cat and Kitten. This is madness. Drop the K, make keyboards smaller and write faster.

    And why do we need vowels?

    Fr xmple, Shkspr sgnd hz nme 5 tms n wzs wrtn dfrnt etc

    To me, this is (almost) how I leanrt short-hand all those years ago.

    Why we use some of these grammar ‘rules’ to me is madness.

    Something needs to be done!

    Take care,
    Ivan

  9. FWIW I posted this on LinkedIn.com and 132 comments were made!

    Worth joining up, some great info getting shared here.

    Ivan

    PS – Editors are often 'right' but now always very realistic.

  10. You're right.

    I took on too much when I wrote this and posted it too fast. Bad boy!

    Will correct on Monday.

  11. Made the corrections.

    Thx again

  12. Tom,

    I’m reading a book by Jeremy Clarkson (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/column…) writer for The Times in the UK and he talks (very funnily) about how writing evolves. He’s a terrific read.

    How it first changed with the Carolingian miniscule (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_minuscule) and into other writing styles.

    For example, Shakespeare signed his name 5 times (i.e. that we know of) and each was written different. So, maybe he wasn’t too hung up on grammar. Who knows.

    For me, I can never understand why we use the letter K.

    What’s the point?

    Just use C instead. We have Cat and Kitten. This is madness. Drop the K, make keyboards smaller and write faster.

    And why do we need vowels?

    Fr xmple, Shkspr sgnd hz nme 5 tms n wzs wrtn dfrnt etc

    To me, this is (almost) how I leanrt short-hand all those years ago.

    Why we use some of these grammar ‘rules’ to me is madness.

    Something needs to be done!

  13. True. User Guide seems the most straightforward.

    One exception seems to be User Manual when used for Cars.

  14. At Sun we've been using “Guide”, and more often “User's Guide”: http://tinyurl.com/yj3voox

    (My objection to “User Guide” r/t “User's Guide” is that “User Guide” in my mind seems to imply a “guide to the user” while the possessive on User's implies a guide FOR the user. But that may be just me.)

    There's also Programming Guide vs Programmer's Guide. That one has no winners.

    In general, we're seeing “Manual” primarily for hardware while Guide is for software, but there is no rule. It's mostly a convention.

    Getting the title right is serious business, mainly because of search engines. But consistency is the clue here. If you have the good luck to be creating a new documentation set from scratch, you can determine the rules from the start. Just be sure to stick with them. However, places with legacy documentation that stretches back decades, the problem is much more complex. Grandpa's manual is now a guide, and the Quick Reference Card is now Online Help!

  15. Hello Richard,

    <My objection to “User Guide” r/t “User's Guide” is that “User Guide” in my mind seems to imply a “guide to the user” while the possessive on User's implies a guide FOR the user. But that may be just me.)

    No, I see it the same way, actually.

    It’s the guide that belongs to the user, something for them to read.

    Saying that, I think we’re stuck with Guide as it’s got the market cornered, so to speak.

    I've been reading the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (gt little book) and they make the point that once the public settles on a ‘word’, then the word becomes the industry standard. Deviating from this seems to cause concern/anxiety in their mind.

    <we're seeing “Manual” primarily for hardware while Guide is for software, but there is no rule. It's mostly a convention.

    Someone said to me that it may also relate to the industry you work in. The example they gave was ‘Car Manuals’, you don’t see Car Guides, though you do get a Maintenance Guide…

    <If you have the good luck to be creating a new documentation set from scratch, you can determine the rules from the start. Just be sure to stick with them.

    I worked with a Gov body once who wanted to make the docs more personal. What I mean is that they wanted to drop the term User Guide as they felt it would offend ‘citizens’. (Research also unearthed a complaint that the term Manual Guides was sexist… I hear you!)

    Two proposed document titles were Citizen’s Guide & Owner’s Guide.

    <However, places with legacy documentation that stretches back decades, the problem is much more complex. Grandpa's manual is now a guide, and the Quick Reference Card is now Online Help!

    Yes, even the wisdom of Solomon…

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