Community Management

Real Users Don’t Read Manuals

Creating software as a tool has its challenges. The biggest one, arguably, is ensuring that users — continue reading
Posted by Moritz Arendt
June 20, 2017

Creating software as a tool has its challenges. The biggest one, arguably, is ensuring that users can easily understand your product. Being able to effectively onboard users and teach them how it works is essential to your success. So, what’s the best way to guide your users? Let’s find out!

Good products help users attain goals

Good products help users reach their goals with minimum effort. This is the case for machines, electronics, and it also holds true for software. Software needs a good UX design, which is about constructing software that people can easily understand and handle intuitively.

People use software to reach a goal. This means that one of the main criteria used to rate software experience is how effectively and efficiently people can reach those goals.

So, in general, your users should be able to easily understand three different things about your software:

  • To know where different functions can be found
  • To understand the purpose of the different functions
  • To understand how different functions work

Even intuitive UI can require further explanation

As much as designers try to give the user an intuitive experience, it’s almost inevitable that complex software requires further explanation. While working on our SaaS release we faced the challenge of explaining how our platform works to both end users and Site/Community Managers. An advantage of a SaaS solution is that people are able to download it and set up their own version without any direct contact with the company.

Read the blogpost What defines good design?  from our UI designer Xinyou Ma to learn more about good interface design practices!

Real users don’t read manuals

Designers tend to rely on manuals to educate their users. Physical manuals were abandoned ages ago for software but online manuals, helper texts, and tooltips are still very common. There’s a good reason for this: they help users understand difficult interactions, guide novice users through the platform, and show expert users the shortcuts.

We’ve done exactly the same for Open Social. Mainstream social media platforms have trained our end users to some degree, and at this point, almost everyone is familiar with how to post comments or enroll in events. But we still required a manual for Site Managers that explains how the software works, including how to set up social media login, site customization, visibility settings, and more. These additional features are far more challenging to explain compared to the basic functions of a community solution like Open Social. To help inexperienced Site Managers we took a few precautionary measures by removing functions that could break the site and bundled other features. Even still, further explanation is necessary. We solved this with a tour, helper texts, and an informative resource center.

So far so good. The only problem: real users do not read manuals. 

Why don’t users read manuals?

There are a few reasons why users don’t read manuals. Firstly, most people are lazy. They’d rather not do something that takes time and effort, like read complicated instructions. Even when forced to work with a new tool, most novice users will skip over the instructions and assume most of it can be figured out by using common sense. And advanced users skip over the instructions because they assume that they know how to use the software already. This doesn’t just lead to errors but also to users who maintain ineffective usage patterns by keeping themselves from learning and limiting their ability to achieve the goals with their new tool.

This isn’t always the user’s fault. Instructions are often tedious to read and poorly written. Users who try to read the instructions are often confused by the sheer number of new words and concepts. Designers often tend to over-complicate their instructions as well. This holds especially true for helper texts within a system. These texts are often too long because they attempt to cover all bases and make sure the user understands what he has to do. However, they often have the opposite effect because long texts scare off the users.

The theory of the Active User Paradox

Back in the 1980’s John M. Carroll and Mary Beth Rosson from IBM discovered that people don’t read manuals but dive right into tasks until they get stuck or finish through trial and error. They formulated the theory of the Active User Paradox.  In this theory they deal with two common problems faced by users:

  1. The Product Paradox: a user tends to only think about the goal itself and reaching it as fast as possible. They use the first best solution they can find and skip the instructions.
  2. The Assimilation Paradox: if users don’t know something then they compare it to things that they already know. Even if those comparisons are not appropriate.


These behavioral patterns explain that users skip proper learning because they try to avoid spending more time than necessary with a product. However, in the long run, this usually costs more time than it saves.

How to improve user learning behavior

Thankfully, with the above in mind, there are things you can do to improve the learning behavior of users. One important thing is to accept that long-winded written text-based manuals are not an ideal solution. Diversification of methods and giving users different avenues for learning will help teach users about your software. In addition, we think that manuals should always be offered since users could need it in worst case scenarios.

There are various onboarding strategies that incorporate the principles Carroll and Rosson outlined in their papers. These try to mitigate the impact of the two paradoxes explained above.

Onboarding strategies

Onboarding tours in Open Social

At Open Social we’ve incorporated these principles by providing users with onboarding ‘tours’ of the platform. This is a semi-manual that is incorporated into the environment while the user is already active on the platform. Not only does this helps users understand Open Social, it also raises engagement and creates a perception of progress. This strategy is supported by the academic finding that: “In interactive tasks, people are biased towards the use of general procedures that start with interactive actions.” (Fu & Gray, 2004)

We also offer chat support for Site Managers. People are much more likely to ask for help than to look it up. A survey from Gadget Helpline revealed that 64% of men don’t read the manual before calling tech support. Since we want you to be successful in starting your community, we offer both technical support and help our clients with community building issues.

Design for the user, not the system

We always design for the user, and not for the system. This is also the case when writing manuals. We try to keep as close to the Principles of the Minimalism (Carrol, 1990) as possible:

  • Minimize the amount of reading and other passive forms of training by allowing users to fill in the gaps themselves
  • Include error recognition and recovery activities in the instruction
  • Make all learning activities self-contained and independent of sequence


The Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction’ (Meij & Carroll, 1995) has a lot of helpful instructions on this topic that go beyond mere copywriting and shows how to onboard users and engage them directly from the start.

Where can you find Open Social manuals?

Alongside the onboarding ‘tour’ and chat support we host our full manual on our resource center Community Talks, which is a SaaS installation of Open Social.

“Online help is more likely to be consulted than paper manuals, but users are equally likely to report that they solve their problem by asking a colleague or experimenting on their own.”  (Novick, D. G., & Ward, K. 2006)

Our Resource Center doesn’t just function as a manual but also as a community for Open Social Site and Community Managers. This allows people to talk about issues they encounter and share information about solutions They can either ask for support from someone from our team or from a more experienced Site Manager rather than looking it up themselves. We hope that this combination of manual and peer support system will create more interaction and traction than we can deliver with either classical manuals or a traditional support chat.


features and extensions

Have you read our manual? How do you teach your users to use your product? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

Further Reading

In this article we discuss

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