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Times are tough: Economic pressures, labor and supply chain issues and investment slowdowns have left companies of all kinds seeking new ways to cut costs without slowing revenues. But there’s one existing asset few companies currently take advantage of: Their user manuals. 

That might sound counterintuitive: Manuals aren’t exactly sexy, and most go unread. Faced with a new product, barely 10% of users crack open the manual; most simply dive in and start clicking buttons. With younger users over three times more likely to skip the instructions, manuals can look about as relevant as a Walkman or a Betamax video player. 

But precisely because they’re neglected, manuals represent an opportunity. By reimagining manuals as digital experiences — dynamic, discoverable and even fun to use — it’s possible to boost value for users, unlock new engagement channels and data sources, and create important new revenue streams. 

Instead of simply accepting that nobody will RTFM, and dutifully publishing boring pamphlets and hard-to-navigate PDFs, brands need to change the narrative. It’s time to turn over a new leaf — and start putting manuals at the center of our growth strategies.


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Manuals still matter

Since the 1980s, researchers have been trying to figure out why nobody reads manuals. One theory is that people aren’t seeking optimal solutions. If a user stumbles on an approach that works for their immediate need, they’ll stick with it instead of digging deeper.

Because of this, product designers strive to create products that users can simply pick up and use — but the more frictionless and intuitive the user experience becomes, the more intrusive it feels to stop and leaf through a paper manual. Even digging up a PDF on the manufacturer’s website feels burdensome: For today’s users, it’s easier to just tap a question into Google.

That’s a problem because users who rely on third-party advice often fail to get optimal value from their products. Writing in Nature, one scientist recently admitted that his research dramatically improved after he got around to reading the manuals for his lab equipment. “Knowing an instrument well can make the difference between an average and an excellent measurement,” he writes.

Unread manuals lead to unused features, wasted R&D investments and unsatisfied customers. With 68% of returns classed as “no fault found,” and 41% of shoppers having returned non-defective products over the past year, brands seeking to stabilize revenues urgently need new ways to show customers the value inherent in their products. 

Well-managed customer support can help, of course. But 73% of users prefer to solve problems on their own, and that requires self-serve tools. Your product manuals can drive that process if you view them not simply as paper booklets or static PDFs, but rather as opportunities to build an elevated and effective channel for user engagement.

The way forward

After Steve Jobs’ death, pundits argued that one of his greatest achievements was creating devices so easy to use that they made user manuals unnecessary. But that misses the point: The Cupertino designers’ real success was weaving relevant information and support organically through the product experience. Intuitive UX makes Apple’s products easy to use, but on-device pop-ups and tips help users to discover features and customize settings without realizing they’re being spoon-fed valuable product information.

Of course, it’s easier to create that kind of seamless experience if you’re selling iPads than if you’re marketing non-digital products such as washing machines or power tools. But companies of all kinds can do more to put product information at users’ fingertips, and to ensure that every interaction with their manuals is easier and better than with any alternative information source.

For instance, a washing machine manufacturer could add a QR code to the sticker listing the device’s model number, enabling a user to instantly access a rich digital app with information, how-to videos and troubleshooting tips. Almost 90 million Americans already use QR codes, so a user who pulls out their smartphone to Google a fix might find it easier to scan a code to access authoritative, manufacturer-approved content and support. 

For manufacturers, that interaction unlocks important new opportunities. In addition to product information, a customer could be provided with offers for revenue-driving add-on products, extended warranties or loyalty programs. And with every click, you can collect actionable data about the user’s experience. If a particular feature is causing problems, you can push out quick fixes — or add new features to your roadmap to drive future success.

Getting from here to there

Of course, if turning manuals into engaging digital experiences were easy, everyone would already have done it. The reality, though, is that most companies settle for creating PDFs that replicate the paper experience, warts and all. It’s easy to see why: Few businesses have spare developer resources to lavish on user manuals, and many non-digital companies lack the in-house expertise to build out new web hubs, engagement channels and data tools. 

Fortunately, new tech is making it far easier and more cost-effective for companies to level up their user manuals. Machine learning and natural language processing innovations can digest PDF manuals and spit out feature-rich, ready-to-deploy self-service web tools almost as soon as the source files can be uploaded — with no need to hire developers or designers. Automated tools are also making analytics and engagement easier to manage, with dashboards communicating insights from usage data to stakeholders across the product pipeline. 

With printing costs up 70%, going digital brings obvious financial benefits. But to stay relevant in today’s digital-first world, businesses need a strategy that goes beyond simply converting paper manuals into PDFs. Documentation isn’t simply a box to be checked off — it’s an opportunity to deepen and extend your relationship with your customers. Even if you’re legally required to provide instructions in print, you can cut costs and delight your customers by leaning into dynamic digital content to elevate the user experience. 

A vital touchpoint

Users are most likely to seek information when they start using a product and right before they throw up their hands in frustration and stop using a product. Companies that engage customers effectively in these critical moments can unlock real value by reducing friction, collecting data, stoking loyalty and — in the long run — driving revenue growth. For non-digital brands, this opens an important new chapter in the customer journey. Your customer relationship shouldn’t end when they make a purchase — it should begin there, and dynamic digital manuals are a critical tool in making that happen.

Unlocking that potential starts with the decision to treat your product manuals as a strategic asset and to begin using this vital touchpoint to drive engagement and growth across the customer lifecycle. During these tough times, we can’t afford to simply accept that nobody will RTFM: The reality is that if nobody’s reading your manuals, you’re doing something wrong. 

So step up, and commit to using your manuals to drive growth. For today’s businesses, digital manuals are low-hanging fruit: A cost-effective way to reduce expenses, boost retention and drive new revenues. You don’t have to read the manual to know that’s an opportunity worth seizing.

Carolyn Parent is CEO of Conveyer and Entrepreneur in Residence at HearstLab.


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