How to Create a User Manual For Your Database (7 Steps)

End-user documentation is an important, albeit daunting, task for any database professional. Here are some tipsto help you get started.

Alrighty! Who’s excited to talk user manuals?

Look, I get it. But if you’re like me, then you agree that documenting processes & systems is essential for any nonprofit. It’s just a matter of finding the time to do it.

And why wouldn’t we? Documentation saves us time in the long run. It spares us from unnecessary meetings & troubleshooting, by empowering staff to find their own answers.

Not to mention, it’s a darn good skill to have. And it’s crucial to sustaining your work, should you & your org part ways.

Try setting aside time to do this. The steps below should help make this as painless as possible…and if not, there’s a “freebie” towards the end you’ll want to grab.

How to Create a Solid User Manual for your Org

1. Begin with an outline.

Before you type out procedures and definitions, consider the structure of your document. What are the topics that will be easy for staff to follow? And what structure will be easy for you to update over time?

Spoiler: this becomes your Table of Contents!

For example…my team’s Salesforce manual is broken apart mainly by objects. But depending on your setup, splitting topics by department or function may make more sense.

2. Start broad. Then, narrow.

Your manual is bound to have specific details and step-by-step instructions. Basically, all the stuff our colleagues keep forgetting.

But good documentation will also give a helpful, birds-eye view of how your system is organized & why. Keep that in mind as you plan your outline in Step 1.

p.s. I highly recommend diagramming your data model. You can use a free tool like Google Drawings, or build something in a Word or Powerpoint doc (using shapes & lines). Doesn’t have to be fancy!

3. Define all of your data.

Every tech asset in your database is a manifestation of some real-life “thing”: whether it’s a person (donors, volunteers, etc…), transaction (donation, grant, etc..), or partnership (program delivery).

Good documentation will bridge the gap between the real and the technical, by defining what your objects & fields represent in the actual world.

Meta, I know.

4. Instruct your users.

Your user manual should do two things: define and instruct.

If staff need to perform tasks in your database – data entry, data updates, even searching – help them out by including step-by-step instructions for those things.

Hint: Numbered lists & short sentences are your friend here.

5. Write everything once. Then trim, repeatedly.

We all know the pain of reading a manual that’s lengthy, wordy, and smothered in text. Spare your colleagues. Bang out that first draft, and plan to spend lots of time trimming it down.

Why? Because less is more. And it takes time to put together documentation that is comprehensive and effective, while still being concise.

p.s. I’m not saying to cut things out for the sake of brevity. I am saying that concise documentation is an art – one that doesn’t land on the first try.

6. Make use of white space.

Think of this in terms of UX (user experience). The same way you care about your database being user-friendly, you also want your manual to be easy to browse.

The more white space there is – the spacing between/around your text – the better. Also consider your font-size, line height and bullet spacing.

7. Only use screenshots where you have to.

Screenshots are fantastic. Why explain something to someone when you can show them, too?

But I personally believe they’re a bit of a trap. At least when it comes to documentation.

Think about it. If anything changes in your system’s interface, you’ll have to re-grab and replace those images. They can also distract from your written instructions, especially if you get carried away.

That’s why I mainly use them to highlight something my users might otherwise miss.

🌟 One more thing that might help….

Now that we have our steps, it’s time to start building! To help, I’ve created a user manual template that I’m sharing with anyone who wants it – for Microsoft Word or Google Docs!

All you need is an email address. To check it out and grab your copy, follow this link.

Since this is a database blog, one quick note! By signing up to receive the template, you’ll also be added to my blog’s email list (which I never share with third parties). I send bi-monthly updates and occasional announcements, which you can opt-out of at any time.

Share your thoughts!