People can misunderstand each other, but the written word is (usually) unambiguous. So most companies rely on quality written documentation to disseminate information. Unfortunately, creating such documentation is often the first chore to be abandoned when employees feel overworked and harried.

While it can be hard to commit the initial time investment required to produce training documentation, imagine your relief if you could train a new employee or delegate a task simply by handing over a few pages of instructions. By creating effective training documents, you can avoid a lot of stress by directing your users to a common source of information instead of giving individual lessons. Here are some tips for creating quality documentation.

The emphasis is on effective
We’ve all been given responsibility for a new task with only a few handwritten scribbles to guide us, or, worse still, painstaking documentation that seemed to be badly translated from a foreign language. Can you create documentation that is as effective on its own as a live trainer would be? Yes, and it’s not as difficult or time-consuming as you might think. Recently, I’ve documented operational procedures for TechRepublic’s TechMails team, and here are a few tips that I’ve found for keeping it simple and effective.

1. Choose a format and build a template
Building a template serves two purposes: 1) it keeps you focused, even when dealing with the most disparate and complex tasks, and 2) it provides your users with consistency and familiarity. My colleagues and I have adopted the tried-and-true “Five Ws and an H” format:

  • Who
  • What
  • When
  • Where
  • Why
  • How

Give your users every last bit of information they might need about the procedure/task, and they won’t come hunting you down to fill in the blanks. Using this format, you can clarify even the most complicated piece of your organization’s convoluted processes.

2. Know that of which you speak
In other words, be sure to practice the procedure you are documenting. Try simulating minor user error to see what happens. It’s often more helpful to know how the procedure could go wrong than to know how to do it exactly right.

3. Use a common language
Many companies have a formal or informal agreement about terms in common use. Depending on which department will ultimately use your documentation, “customer” could mean anything from the end user of a development project to an advertising client. Make yourself familiar with the language of your audience.

4. Make it easy to scan
Also be sure to employ consistency in your directions. For example: If you use the phrase “from the Tools menu, select Options,” the next time you direct the user to choose an option from a menu you should use the same phrasing, e.g. “from the Edit menu, select Paste Special.” Don’t worry about being repetitive; this is one case when it is actually useful.

5. Split complicated procedures into smaller sections
If you find yourself documenting procedures that consist of more than 10 numbered steps, you might consider breaking your instructions into sub-sections. You can then recap at the end of each section and briefly explain what happens next. This is an effective way to prevent the user from losing sight of the ultimate goal.

6. Use handy screenshots and Word drawing tools
Most people are able to rapidly assimilate information in a visual format, so never underestimate the power of a well-chosen screenshot. Our screen-capture tool of choice at TechRepublic is SnagIt. (If you don’t already have a screenshot tool, check out the TechSmith home page .)

Rather than cluttering your page with screenshots for each step, try capturing a screen that contains three or four steps. Then, use Word’s drawing tools to bring attention to the pertinent information, as we have in Figure A. (For more information about drawing tools, you can read about how to create custom arrows in Word here.)

Figure A
Illustrating more than one step in a single graphic helps save space and eliminate confusion.

I often use the oval AutoShape frequently to encircle the “active” parts of a graphic and the Text Box tool to add informational asides. I like to note common mistakes to redirect the user if they go astray, as illustrated in Figure B. After all, it happens to all of us—even with the best of instructions.

Figure B
Be sure to note what can go wrong with a procedure, as well as what’s supposed to happen.

7. Send your documentation on a couple of trial runs
Ask a few co-workers for constructive feedback. Be sure that your test subject pool includes typical users who will rely on your documentation, not just other IT pros. Try not to get frustrated if you have to refine your documentation a few times. Remember, once you get it right, you’ll be free of explaining this particular task ever again!
To comment on these tips, or to share your own tips for creating training documentation, please post a comment below or send us a note.