Software Documentation: Why No One Reads The Manual And What To Do

A history of self-serve support, and a look at the replacements for old school docs

Pulkit Agrawal
10 min read

It might seem archaic in the age of product-focused SaaS, but there are still companies providing their customers with non-interactive help like:

  • Paper user manuals
  • HTML or PDF docs
  • Static webpages without convenient, modern features

Just like the 90s, even when buying new Microsoft products you'll get software documentation in these non-interactive forms. But it's not just the reserve of big companies and their enterprise ways, either -- thousands of people search for topics related to creating static documentation every month:

However, user preference and technology are changing quickly. Nowadays it’s unlikely that modern customers are happy using old school software documentation to find answers to their problems. The lack of self-serve help that isn't searchable and interactive can be enough for a user to churn, accoring to researchers David Novick and Karen Ward.

Even back in 2006, Novick and Ward concluded that the vast majority of people do not use static documentation, and that users have a greater tendency to give up or abandon software if thats's the only self-serve option.

While the first signs of dissatisfaction cropped up well over a decade ago, we still have a lot of cases where software companies use unsophisticated documentation as their main channel for self-serve support, and interest remains high.

In this article, we will see how user opinion on help documentation has evolved over time, the biggest user frustrations, and how to effectively replace static docs with new approaches to guidance.

The attitude shift towards software documentation

Why don’t people read the manual? is a UTEP study, where Novick and Ward interview 25 people with college degrees using computers every day in their work life, to find out their feelings on the state of self-serve support.

In this section, we will explore those findings alongside the evolution of software documentation: what self-serve support channels looked like a decade ago, why are they inappropriate nowadays, and how to replace them with effective solutions.

Printed software documentation and manuals

Printed documentation and manuals saw their peak in software's early days and still remain in use.

It’s good to offer a central source of knowledge, but are user manuals the best way to do that?

For various reasons we're about to examine - no.

How users feel about static documentation

Novick and Ward in their research compared sentiment about both printed and online software documentation, and asked participants to describe their feelings with single phrases and words.

For printed documentation, users gave 9 positive and 61 negative opinions. That makes just 12% of print document users that were satisfied with support, even over a decade ago.

The most frequent complaints about printed documentation were:

  • physically hard to handle
  • hard to navigate
  • too basic to be useful
  • hard to understand
  • unstylish and boring
  • out of date

Compared with that, the user’s opinions towards online software documentation were more positive - with 41 positive phrases and 22 negative ones. Here are the sentiments:

  • convenient
  • helpful
  • searchable
  • easy to use

The study also revealed thee biggest reasons users avoid printed software documentation:

  • Hard to navigate through - a new user will find the product itself difficult to navigate. So, if a user has trouble to navigate through the product, it’s common to turn to the docs - if the documentation also isn’t easy to use, it can be really frustrating and stressful for a customer.
  • Bad/lack of search - It’s frustrating for users to overlook the relevant part of the documentation because the search terms/topics/keywords are not the same as in their vocabulary.
  • Unhelpful level of depth - In software documentation, research found that answers are usually either too basic or too technical to be useful.

Interviews found that users find it hard to surface answers and solutions in the printed software documentation, and also were frustrated by how online or pdf versions of software documentation make learning too complex or time-consuming.

So, how have things progressed since the study was conducted in 2006?

User support documentation has moved through 4 phrases so far:

  1. In the beginning, software companies would mainly use printed software documentation or user manuals.
  2. After they understood that it’s not scalable to print software documentation for every new user and that every update requires a new version of the docs, software companies passed their customer support to the online, html or pdf manuals.
  3. Manuals structured as one long document were divided up into articles and hosted in a knowledge base with search, categories, and other features to help organize the information.
  4. To bake self-serve support into the product, software uses tooltips, tours, and widgets which support the user preemptively, contextually, and based on behaviour or persona.

To meet the ways user expect to learn, improve how new users get started, and combine marketing with education, it’s time to move to more suitable and effective ways of offering self-serve support.

The benefits of breaking free from old school docs include: decreased support load, better feature adoption, effective user onboarding, and better long-term retention through deeper product engagement.

From a pure revenue standpoint, the evolution of self-serve help became critical for running a scalale SaaS business, making knowledge bases and contextual help a must-have.

The knowledge base as the first go-to channel for users

Modern self-serve support channels, like well-categorized knowledge bases, are often the first destination for stuck users.

According to Social Media Today, 70% of customers prefer to use a company’s website as the first place to search for answers, and 51% of customers prefer to do technical support through the knowledge base, when compared to human support.

Even though knowledge bases are online, searchable, and often easier to use than regular manuals, they still aren't a silver bullet:

At Zendesk, we recently broke up a long article about "users.". The info was in this long article, but when users found the article in search, they didn't know the info they needed was buried somewhere in there.

According to Jennifer at Zendesk, when creating knowledge base content it's important to have a template, stick to a QA/review process, and continually improve content that isn't solving problems.

Just as important as clear content is a clear heirarchy - how it's categorized, tagged, and able to be searched is what differentiates it from a clunky PDF.

Here's a neat example from ZoomInfo:

As you can seem, everything is clean and accessible. A user will probably not face any of the navigation challenges and annoyances that come with print or manuals.

Although knowledge bases are a modern replacement (and have become essential for even simple products), they are not the only type of self-serve customer support you can offer - especially if you’re building a SaaS app.

In-app widgets, prompts and product tours

In-app widgets, prompts, product tours, and many other types of in-app help you can offer are one of the most effective ways to teach your customers how to use your product, and reduce load on your support team

This is even more true if you run a freemium or trial model - in-app user experiences will help you to onboard your users faster, leading them towards the “aha moment” and product adoption.

So, how can you help your customers while they're inside the product, without forcing them to leave it and search for the answers on the internet, software documentation or even in your knowledge base?

Try implementing product tours

spendesk user onboarding tour

Spendesk's user onboarding tour functions as a quick-start guide, with example content and hints to clear up the taxonomy and familarize the user with a basic process. See the full tour here in our Inspiration Gallery.

Product tours are one of the most common types of in-app flows for user onboarding and feature discovery. With product tours, you can point your users towards your most important features while they're inside the UI they'll eventually use to solve a problem or find value.

With a tool like Chameleon, you can customize your product tours and walkthroughs for different sets of user personas. This will help you to improve tour performance and engagement by showing the right messaging and prompts to the right users.

Use checklists

evernote user onboarding checklist

Checklists are one of the most powerful ways to lead your customers towards key activation points. By tapping into the Zeigarnik effect, they're psychologically proven to motivate customers to complete your onboarding flow and be more ready to adopt the product.

Checklists are one of my little "hacks" to double conversion rates. To put it simply, if you want to increase your activation rate, start using checklists.

- Wes Bush, author of Product-Led Growth

By clearly telling users what to do and how, checklists help users easily understand your product and see value faster than if they were poking around on their own trying to figure it out.

In-app experiences also shouldn't be all about education; tours launched from checklists are a great place to showcase unique value propositions and actually market the feature being used.

From this Evernote example, we can see a great way to implement checklists in your user onboarding to pave the way for user activation. Evernote uses the checklist to have the user interact with the core features in a meaningful way, and uses microcopy to sell the benefits.

While checklists, prompts and tooltips aren't full replacements for documentation, there's huge benefit in motivating a user to discover answers on their own through product usage, or to be able to get the right amount of guidance without breaking flow.


Research has shown that static docs are frustrating to the point where users would rather avoid using help or the software at all, largely because of issues around complexity of the explanation and usability awkwardness.

Fortunately, technology and new trends bring us new and more engaging ways of offering self-serve customer support.

A great replacement for both printed and online software documentation can be knowledge bases. The biggest advantages of knowledge bases against the other types of self-serve customer support are the easiness of navigation and cutting-edge design.

Other great types of self-serve help which support knowledge bases and drive product adoption are in-app widgets, prompts and product tours.

Since in-app experiences don't force the user to switch context or go on a long hunt for information themselves, they reduce the need for ticketing and live chat, plus will lead your customers towards activation and product adoption.

For help adding self-serve help to your SaaS product, including checklists, tooltips, and tours, request a demo of Chameleon.

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