Proper documentation is critical in helping manufacturers establish a positive reputation and build trust with customers. A product instruction manual guides your customers to fully understand your product by providing critical information about how to use your product safely and effectively. A well-written manual also reduces the likelihood of product liability issues.
In leading markets, it’s legally required that you provide user information with your products. Navigating these requirements demands in-depth knowledge of the regulatory landscape of your destination market. This guide will outline the best practices for writing a compliant product instruction manual, provide solutions to the more difficult aspects of writing it, and offer tips on how to effectively navigate the process with a third-party expert.
A product instruction manual must comply with your destination market’s policies and regulations, which are often complex. Most companies work with a third-party expert to ensure their manuals comply. If your manual isn’t compliant, then neither is your product.
Omitting certain information from your instruction manual can lead to recalls, lawsuits, and reputational damage, so it is important to understand the legal implications of what should be included.
A product instruction manual is an important part of the product being sold, and it should include details about how to use the product, safety information, technical information, and troubleshooting solutions, among other details.
Writing a product instruction manual takes considerable planning, and it is important to include key sections such as a table of contents, product specifications, maintenance information, safety instructions, troubleshooting tips, and customer support pathways.
A trusted third party provides expert guidance on what should be included in your product instruction manual to help ensure that it is well-organized, easy to navigate, and compliant with regulatory standards.
Product instruction manuals may be mandatory for regulatory compliance depending on your product and destination market. For example, if you are marketing a product in the EU, or a toy product in the US, product instruction manuals must be included to comply with product safety regulations. By law, they are considered part of the product. Such markets have complex interplay between product standards, policies, and laws that require expert interpretation and application to your product and its instruction manual. Furthermore, if you are selling in multiple markets, you must ensure your manual complies with each market’s unique requirements.
The legal ramifications for non-compliance can be devastating, but a clear and well-organized product instruction manual that aligns with safety standards provides legal protection. Your instruction manual can act as a buffer if any claims are brought against your product – as long as the manual is carefully designed to comply with all relevant regulations.
Additionally, product instruction manuals help to prevent accidents and provide a standardized way to communicate important information about a product's features, functions, and proper use to customers. A well-written manual establishes trust with your customers and can act as an essential resource for them to rely upon. Not only does a manual help improve customer satisfaction and prevent product returns, but it also is a critical safety feature.
A well-designed product instruction manual can even serve as a tool to set your product apart from the competition. For example, including an instructional video in your manual impresses customers and makes their lives easier – and can thus lead to repeat customers. Additionally, the manual can highlight the benefits and unique features of your product to differentiate it from competitors.
As a manufacturer, retailer, or importer, it’s important to understand that omitting certain critical pieces of information is just as damaging as providing false information. This information includes but is not limited to exact language with safety labeling, potential hazards, installation instructions, grounding techniques (electronic products), and more. Failure to include essential information can lead to recalls, lawsuits, and reputational damage. Given the extreme complexity of instruction manual information requirements, expert guidance is usually necessary to ensure you are not missing anything critical.
Let’s focus on some of the critical components and why it’s so important to include them in your instruction manuals:
Some regulations and safety standards require product specifications, a description of your product’s features, design, materials, and other performance characteristics, to be listed in your product’s instructions. For example, the ASTM standards for personal protective equipment (PPE) require product specifications to be included in your instruction manual. In other cases, providing your customer with product specs allows them to make sure the product received is the product described. This can avoid improper use of a product and resulting injuries.
Always keep in mind, protecting your customer protects you, but providing them with enough detail without offering proprietary details of your product can be a delicate balance. This is where a trusted third-party can provide expert guidance on what must be included.
Some products require specific parts and service locations to maintain. Bicycles, for example, require regular maintenance and some brands require their own expert technicians to service the product to make sure it’s being serviced correctly and the warranty can be honored. Providing your customer with the resources to properly service your product can help to avoid expensive replacement costs, poor product reviews, and customer service hours.
Many countries require user instructions that detail how to properly use your product. For example, the CPSIA in the United States requires manufacturers, retailers, and importers of toys to offer clear instructions to assemble, use, and maintain the product. Similarly, the FCC requires electronic equipment to include user instructions on installment procedures, electronic display access, the use of shielded cables, and more. This critical section of your product instruction manual should be heavily researched and reviewed by experts before publication to avoid improper use and legal issues including recalls, lawsuits, and consumer confidence.
A well-designed product should require little-to-no troubleshooting for proper use. In some cases, however, a troubleshooting section of your product instruction manual can help to alleviate common issues involving your product. This section is unique, in that it can require test to determine what common issues can arise from proper and improper use. While generally not required by law, it can help guide your customer to the goal of using your product as intentionally designed.
Reliable customer support can make the difference between having a successful product and having it fail in a competitive market. Directing your customer to the correct resource that addresses their issues will give them confidence that your product is worth supporting. However, customer support can be time-consuming and expensive, so clearly listing contact information such as email addresses, phone numbers, chat functions, or forums can alleviate frustration for your customer.
A vital part of your product instruction manual is proper labeling. Many markets and governing bodies have specific labeling requirements your product must meet before it can be sold. For example, regulations like Europe’s EN 82079-1 require specific information to be given to the customer for “safe, efficient, and effective use of a supported product.”
In the US, various regulations require labeling that may include the name and address of the manufacturer, specific symbols, expiration dates, and the omission of misleading statements. For example, California requires Prop 65 warning labels for products containing chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm.Failure to include proper labeling can result in punitive damages and considerable reputational harm. Consulting with a trusted technical documentation company to help compile your labeling requirements is necessary to guarantee compliance.
If you are not a product instruction manual expert, you will likely have difficulty navigating the associated regulatory compliance requirements. To streamline the process, it is recommended you consult with an expert before tackling this massive undertaking. Having access to product standards, directives, recommendations for labeling, and an experienced team who has developed product instruction manuals before can help simplify the complex landscape.
Once you have consulted with an expert, you will need to prepare a strategic team to work with them to develop your instruction manual. Here is a roadmap to guide you in writing a legally compliant, well-written manual.
1. Assembling a strategic team with a team leader is a great way to start. This team should include personnel from your stakeholder departments like marketing, brand, legal, product/engineering, customer success, and sales. This point of contact will act as the liaison between your team and your third-party expert.
2. Allocate resources to the project including time, a budget, and any outside expertise that will be necessary to complete your product instruction manual. Once completed, you can begin the information-gathering/assembling phase of the project.
Most companies don’t have the resources or the expertise to adequately develop a product instruction manual, so outsourcing the project to a trusted third party is a common way to save time and money, and guarantee compliance.
3. Gather information on your product and customer profile from your respective departments in a comprehensive manner. More is better in this case to limit the chance of omitting critical information about your product. The information gathered should include:
Customer profile data
Potential customer issues
Demographic information (i.e., age, location, gender)
Design and brand resources
Technical product specifications
Legal and regulatory content
4. Determine the structure of your product instruction manual by thinking from a user perspective. The purpose of your manual is to solve an issue for your customer, so take a hard look at your product and use it in a way your customer would. List the issues that arise in chronological order and organize your manual in a way that makes sense for the consumer.
Conducting product testing with a third party is a convenient way to help organize your manual structure and address any safety or regulatory concerns at the same time.
5. Assembling your manual can be an iterative process and requires your team to review it many times. Choosing what information to include also takes time, and developing a checklist can help. Remind yourself and your team to continuously ask, does this information help my customer? Is it legally required? If the answers are yes, include it. If not, omit it.
An expert third-party is important to leverage during this phase. test organize your manual, ensure all required content and labeling are included, and help reduce redundancies.
6. Review your instruction manual for regulatory compliance, spelling, grammar, and most importantly a comprehensive representation of your product on paper. This is your last opportunity to include or omit any information before publishing, so be sure every team member signs off on their content.
7. Publish your manual and include it with your product.
The process described above can be time-consuming to complete, but in the end, having an accurate and compliant manual can reward you with consumer confidence and repeat business.
Here are some tips for a winning manual:
Understand the regulatory requirements
Create a comprehensive manual
Review for errors multiple times
Align the manual with your brand
Include clear troubleshooting steps
Partnering with a trusted third-party expert ensures accuracy and compliance, and achieves the goals listed above. Experts are particularly helpful in identifying technical details, such as prescribed sizes for icons, disposal information, and logos, language to use for recycled content in your products, etc. An experienced partner will understand the requirements for your manual and will ensure your product launch isn’t delayed and your risk of recall is minimized.
If you need technical documentation services, we can help. With industry experts operating in over 100 countries, QIMA can provide you with the expertise needed to sell your product anywhere in the world.
We offer compliance services for product instruction manuals such as:
Publishing – We can develop your product instruction manual, packaging, and product labels from the first brief to print-ready files
Optimization – We can bring your content in line with relevant regulations by optimizing layout, language, and style
Localization – We align your product instruction manual with local regulations and requirements so it is compliant wherever you sell your product
Certification – We review your product details against relevant standards, delivering a certificate of compliance once your product is verified
Translations – We can translate your manual into other languages to comply with the ISO 17100 standard
Video Services – We create demos and instructional videos for your customers that displays your product in action