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

Alrighty! Who’s excited to talk user manuals? Just me? 😂

If you’re anything like me, then you agree that documenting processes & systems is essential for any nonprofit. And yet, end-user documentation (like manuals or guides) often falls to the wayside.

The reason for that is no mystery. It’s hard to find time, let alone even know where to start. Plus, will anyone actually read this thing when it’s done?

But user documentation is worth its weight in gold. It can spare us unnecessary meetings, empower staff to seek their own answers, and it’s a darn good skill to have! It can even be crucial to sustaining all that data work, should you & your org part ways.

So, set aside some time during one of your slow days and get to it. There’s also a freebie towards the bottom that might help.

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 documentation. What are the topics & buckets that will be easy for staff to follow? What structure will be easy for you to update over time? (Spoiler: this becomes your Table of Contents).

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 will largely include nitty gritty details & step-by-step instructions. A.K.A, the stuff our colleagues tend to forget.

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

p.s. One great way to do this is to diagram 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, volunters, 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.

4. Instruct your users.

Your user manual should do two things: define (see #3) and instruct.

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

5. Write & re-write, till you’re down to the essentials.

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 re-write & trim.

Less is more when it comes to documentation. And it’s surprisingly difficult to put together documentation that is comprehensive and effective, while still being concise and to the point.

p.s. I am not saying to cut things out for the sake of brevity. I am saying that concise documentation is an art – one that doesn’t come out 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 usable. White space – the spacing between/around your text – helps.

That’s why you want to trim that first draft, and incorporate formatting that allows for ample white space (think line-height, spacing after bullets, etc…) This creates for a less daunting manual, that won’t bog down your staff.

7. Only use screenshots where you have to.

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

But with documentation, they’re kind of a trap! For one, if anything changes in your system’s interface, you’ll have to re-grab and replace those images. Further, they can distract staff from your actual instructions, which should always take precedence. (I try to only use screenshots to highlight something a user 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 monthly updates and occasional insider announcements, which you can opt-out of at any time.

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