The Operating Manual: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Why the manual must not only be an obligation but can also be an opportunity.

The Operating Manual: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

The best product (e.g., a machine, a system or a device) is useless if you don't know how to use it correctly (i.e. for its intended purpose). User information about an application is really not just a novelty. Even ancient Egyptian sources attest to the existence of descriptions in the form of images carved in stone that deal with the execution of a technique; for example, the depiction of the steps for melting metals or the image of a worker in a stooped position in front of a fireplace.

Then as now, if you develop good operating manuals for your customers, you create the difference between a positive and a negative experience for the user, and as such, you also influence product perception. This means that if the manual is inadequate, this negative experience will also reflect poorly on the product.  


Different Terms – One Common Goal

In connection with operating manuals, a large number of terms appear which are typically used in more or less the same sense: Sometimes they're called operating instructions and sometimes an operating manual. In addition, instructions for use, user manuals or even just user information are all commonly understood to mean "operating instructions".

The relevant standards and directives also require different terms, in some cases. For example, the EU's Machinery Directive uses the term "instruction handbook", while DIN EN 82079-1 uses "user manual". This can lead to confusion and misunderstandings.

In essence, however, these designations mean the same thing, namely:

 "Information that helps the user of a product to use, operate and maintain the product safely and in accordance with its intended purpose and to dispose of it safely after use".

So, in the end, it doesn't matter what the name of the user information document is and whether the manufacturer delivers its product with an instruction manual, operating instructions or instructions for use. What matters is that the user information meets the specific requirements and can be understood and safely implemented by users.



When do I need an Operating Manual?

From a legal perspective, the manufacturer of a product has an obligation to instruct the customer, which must be fulfilled by providing operating instructions (e.g. manuals). This means that if the operating manual is missing, the product is incomplete, and if the operating manuals are faulty, then the product is also considered to be faulty.

Operating manuals are therefore just as important as the product itself and must be regarded as a part of the product.

The law on making products available on the market (the German Product Safety Act – ProdSG) stipulates in § 3 para. 4 that instructions must be provided for certain products:

"If the protection of safety and health can only be guaranteed by the way the product is installed, this has to be indicated adequately when making the product available on the market, unless other ordinances pursuant to Article 8 stipulate otherwise." (source: http://www.gesetze-im-internet.de/englisch_prodsg/englisch_prodsg.html#p0098).

For placing products on the European market, the manual(s) must be included in the official language(s) of the specific EU member state.

In machinery safety law, the instruction handbook is a part of the technical documents according to Annex VII of the EC Machinery Directive. The instruction handbook is compiled as part of the conformity assessment procedure for CE marking after the risk assessment has been completed.

Just as there are requirements for the design of a product, there are also requirements from directives, laws and standards for the operating manuals.


What does an Operating Manual contain?

The operating manual must contain all the necessary information for the intended users (i.e. target audience) of the product so that they can use the product safely, efficiently and as intended during the product's entire life cycle.

The operating manual must contain all relevant safety instructions; not only for normal operation, but also for transport, setup, installation, commissioning, dismantling, etc., in order to draw attention to the residual dangers of the product and to provide instruction on how to deal with them .

Furthermore, the operating manual must contain all legally prescribed contents (by the EU's Machinery Directive and relevant standards for CE marking), such as the safety instructions previously mentioned as the result of the risk assessment, but also the precise description of the intended use and foreseeable misuse, as well as important components specified by DIN EN 82079-1 and ISO 20607.

DIN EN 82079-1: A Working Basis for Technical Editors

The standard DIN EN 82079-1 "Preparation of information for use (instructions for use) of products" is an important orientation for the conception, text and design of instructions for use. The standard not only specifies general principles for the content, presentation and structure of instructions, but it also specifies minimum requirements for comprehensibility, content, structure, design and language as the state of the art.


DIN EN ISO 20607: A Standard for Instruction Handbooks for Machines

The standard "Safety of machinery - Instruction handbook - General drafting principles" specifies requirements for the manufacturer of a machine when designing instruction handbooks. The standard supplements the requirements for instruction handbooks contained in the Machinery Directive Annex I & EN ISO 12100 and deals with the safety-relevant content and the corresponding structure and presentation of the instruction handbook, taking into account all phases of the machine's life cycle.

Depending on the product for which an instruction handbook is created, it's possible that there are legal regulations regarding the content, presentation and format of the instruction handbook. These regulations may originate from national jurisdiction in the United States, directives or regulations in the European Union, or similar legal requirements in other countries or states.


How should I create an Operating Manual?

In addition to the question of "How?", there is also the question of "Who creates the operating instructions?". This is especially true when the task of creating the operating manual is assigned to the designers of a product. Understandably, they may find this task to be "just" an obligation, or even a nuisance, since translating complex issues into simple instructions for action is generally not part of their core competence.

The minimum goal must be that the operating manual meet the legal requirements. This can be ensured most efficiently if an experienced – either internal or external – Technical Editor is entrusted with the task.

Trained and experienced Technical Editors are familiar with standards and guidelines for technical documentation and they're well-schooled in the necessary software tools and editing systems (e.g., DTP, CMS).

The development of operating manuals can either be carried out internally by the company's own Technical Documentation department or by an external service provider. The decision on this usually depends upon the existing experience in creating manuals, as well as on factors such as the complexity of the product, time constraints, the human resources required and, last but not least, the available budget.

The advantage of creating a manual in-house – assuming the appropriate capacities – is primarily that the knowledge and skills can be retained and further developed in-house. In addition, one is independent of possible restrictions and bottlenecks of an external service provider.

The advantages of outsourcing are usually time savings, higher quality, clarified responsibilities and an enhanced reputation with customers. The manufacturer can also react more flexibly to critical situations by ending the need to maintain staff capacities and thus eliminating fixed costs, and must only pay for services that are actually used.

To ensure that the operating manual not only meets the legal requirements, but also instructs users on how to handle the product safely in a way that is as simple and comprehensible as possible, the following points should be taken into account (in addition to using the standards DIN EN 82079-1 and EN ISO 20607 previously mentioned) when creating operating manuals:

  • Conduct research on standards (are there specific standards for the product?)
  • Perform target audience analyses
  • Evaluate a risk assessment and compile safety instructions
  • Develop an intended use and document the foreseeable misuses
  • List only information that will aid users in answering their questions and resolving problems, if necessary
  • Organise and structure information in a way that helps users find content and solutions
  • Define possible errors that may occur, including the appropriate remedies, in fault tables, in order to be able to make corrections more quickly
  • Define the maintenance work required for optimal and trouble-free use of the product with the associated maintenance intervals, within a maintenance schedule
  • Use active wording in the operating manual, to ensure better understanding
  • Avoid technical jargon for reasons of comprehensibility
  • Use meaningful headings for better navigation
  • Support the comprehensibility of the manual with uniform and unambiguous illustrations


The Operating Manual as an Opportunity

For users, the most important aspect of an operating manual is obtaining all the information they need in order to use a product. Particularly in the case of complex products whose mode of operation is not obvious upon first glance, it's crucial that the information provided is complete and purposeful, so that the product can be used safely and as was intended.

For the manufacturer, a decisive point is that a correct and complete operating manual serves as a safeguard under product liability law. Furthermore, it's generally true that the more comprehensible and detailed the instructions are written, the fewer inquiries to product support are to be anticipated. Also, a good operating manual creates anticipation for the use of the product and offers the manufacturer the chance to leave a positive lasting impression, to showcase their competence and, above all, to convey a feeling of safety and reliability to the customer.

Johanno Klotz
Blog post Johanno Klotz
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