User Guide vs User Manual – which one is Right?

Let’s say you’re setting up a new Tech Docs Dept. You need to create new guidelines, style guides and naming conventions. Should you call the user ‘documents’ User Guides or User Manuals? Which one is Right?

I was asked this question by a colleague in India who is setting up a Technical Publishing Dept in Bangalore.  He wants to go with user guide—me too, actually.

  1. When I worked in the UK, it was (mostly) referred to as a User Manual.
  2. Whereas in the US, it was a User Guide. I think the Americans (and me!) like things to be short and to the point. Guide is just that little bit quicker to write, especially when you’re creating MS  Word templates.

Saying that, there is no right and wrong, but I did a little fact finding first.

What Google says about User Guides

I searched Google and came up with these results.

  • 15,600,000 for “user guide”
  • 10,700,000 for “user manual”
  • 5,210,000 for “user’s guide”

What surprised me here was that User’s Guide was so widely used. I’ve always found this a bit annoying. I just don’t like apostrophes, I guess.

Top 5 Most Popular User Guides

A quick check on the most popular user guides showed the following. Not what I expected.

IBM Technical Documents

Next, I checked IBM and Microsoft  to see what term they used.

  • 15,324 for user guide
  • 1,047 for user manual

So, they prefer user guide. Though, you’d think they’d make this mandatory. Of course, it’s not easy when you have offices in every corner of the world, so let’s cut them some slack.

Microsoft prefers User Guides too

The folks are Redmond were more consistent with

  • 1.8 million for User Guides and only
  • 73k for User Manuals

And, to be fair, many of the user manuals were actually guides when I checked. Someone check that search engine!

Is Apple different?

Yes, of course.

Apple prefers the term User’s Guide. Like I said, I never bought into this. I prefer short, snappy titles. We don’t call them System Administrator’s Guide, do we?

Well, of course, some do.

7 Things to consider when naming your documents

  1. Avoid obscure or unique terms for your documents. Use industry standard terminology.
  2. Ask your target audience what they expect.
  3. Create a Style Guide or adopt one, e.g. the Microsoft or IBM style guide.
  4. Develop a naming convention, e.g. a structure approach so that all documents are named, filed, and indexed correctly.
  5. Develop a numbering convention. Show people how to number documents, for example, when to go from 1.1  to 1.2 and when to go from 1.2 to 2.0.
  6. Be consistent.
  7. Be patient when they get it wrong.

My career really began to take off when I saw myself as an ‘enabler’ rather than a writer. My identity of who I was changed from a guy who cranked out docs to someone who helps others get their projects done.

People want to learn, do your best to help them get there.

What do you think? What’s the most practical way to name documents and setup a new Technical Writing Dept?