I think we're all aware that we’re not quite writing gripping detective stories here. Building up a suspense arc in a document and thus maintaining the reader's interest is a challenge all by itself Our best chance to arouse the interest of the user is an interesting Overview chapter. The Overview chapter is the first thing he or she sees when they first crack open our manual. It’s our chance to convince the user that a look at the informational product can be worthwhile, and that we want to help him or her — and that they will find easy to understand information in the document. How do we accomplish this? We have to provide the user exactly the information they’re interested in.
What the user wants to know
No one wants to face a barrage of warnings that can lead you to believe that you’ve made a bad purchase. Who wants to read 10 pages’ worth of what has to be considered when using the product, if the product is not yet even in use? The user probably doesn’t want to know the function of each-and-every screw and button. If the user must first acquire this knowledge, it would take too long to finally put the product into operation. And here, we’re already at the point that we can only assume that the reader wants to use the product as quickly as possible.
In the Overview chapter we can inform, for example, on how to use the product; how it works, which requirements must be met, where to find what information, and what one needs to know about the product, in order to be able to use it as soon as possible.
A chapter with added value
We use overview drawings and infographics to illustrate the functional principle in a simplified way. However, it’s important not only to state the obvious: the user should be able to learn something on every page. For overview drawings, therefore, I’d like to say that not only is the drive at position X, but also that information on the drive can be found in chapter Y or that the drive must be cleaned — and that this is described in chapter Z.
Does the product have interfaces? What information does the user need to integrate it into an overall system, and where can he or she find information about it? Are there possibly other documents to consider, such as cleaning plans or maintenance manuals? For manufacturer documentation of components, it can be helpful to know which information is contained within the manufacturer documentation and which is in the current documentation.
In the Overview chapter, I also like to briefly introduce the most important interface: the one between user and product. Which operating elements are there and are there any conventions that help the user to understand the user interface? Explaining the presentation of buttons or status indicators, the contents of the header or the logic of the menu structure can aid in anticipating many questions.
As long as the user receives something of added value, the Overview chapter may also consist of one-tenth of the total number of pages. It’s intended to help users familiarise themselves with both the product and the manual.