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The best user manuals EVER

We say users won't RTFM, but they do. Just not the one that comes with the product. Personally, I hope companies don't listen to me about making better end-user docs, support, and online help. If y'all made better FMs, I'd be out of a job... along with all the other third-party tech authors and training providers. David Pogue's worst nightmare is that all those Missing Manuals will be found. Until more companies recognize the value (yes, even ROI) of helping their users kick ass, there's an opportunity for the rest of us to help fill in the gaps. But this post describes a company that actually charges its users big money for high-quality learning materials, and people are thrilled to pay it.

User Documentation Users Pay For

Parelli Natural Horsemanship sells horse-related products including saddles, bridles, ropes, etc. But you have to pay more to learn how to use them properly. Much, much more. Users are paying anywhere from $200 to $1000 for home-study kits including booklets and DVDs. Yes, horse training is not the same as using a project management app--clearly the markets and context are different--but the main point is the same--people place an extremely high value on quality learning and support materials. And I'd rather see a company make top-quality manuals and charge extra, than turn out the after-thought-barely-functional docs that ship with most products today (or are posted online for most web apps).

(I believe the better approach would be to NOT charge, and exploit end-user training as a competitive advantage--remember, all things being equal, he who gets his users past the suck threshold and into the kick-ass zone the fastest wins.

FYI: Parelli has one of the largest, most loyal passionate fan bases I've ever seen (and it's what finally motivated me to get back into horses). There are unofficial fan clubs and user groups worldwide, including over 1500 local members just in the little part of Colorado I live in. Parelli is one of the best possible case studies for Creating Passionate Users.

[Note: long post, but you can skip the text and get 90% of it from the pictures.]

Characteristics of World-Class User Learning Materials

1) User-friendly
Easy to use when, where, and how you need it.

2) Based on sound learning principles
i.e. users actually learn from it, not just refer to it.

3) Motivational
Keeps users willing to push forward to higher "levels"

The following pictures are some examples of how Parelli does this. The only thing you need to know to understand the examples is that the Parelli system groups a set of skills and knowledge into "levels". Founder/creator Pat Parelli designed levels into his program based on the success of the martial arts belt system and video game levels. In other words, he knew that the levels --key achievement milestones with clear rewards--are more motivating than just, "here you go... keep going." In the Parelli system, the physical reward is nothing more than a paper certificate and piece of colored string. But the mental and emotional reward is enough to keep people sticking with it and--paying more money for additional training materials (including, sometimes, live courses).

Everything here could be used as a model (with modifications for a different audience, obviously) for building brilliant, motivating, passion-inspiring user learning regardless of the product or service. (And regardless of whether its a physical product or web application.)

Task-based Pocket Guide "job aids" with context-dependent tips, pitfalls, and troubleshooting



Typical user docs are reference. If users are lucky, they might also get a tutorial or "getting started" guide. Some user manuals include "job aids"--in other words, things the user can use just-in-time on the job, but in software, these are nearly always "cheat sheet" cards with keyboard shortcuts rather than "here's how to do this specific thing..."

The Parelli system assumes you can't take a frickin' manual out to the arena with you, so they give you small guides that literally fit into your pocket, so you can use them in real life on the job. But even in software, why assume that it's easy for users to have a big manual beside their desk? Why not a smaller series of booklets based around specific sets of tasks an end-user might want to do?

More importantly, the guides group the problems you might hit in a particular task right there with the instruction for that task. Forcing a user to go to a separate "Troubleshooting" section of FAQ list is just...wrong. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have those separate sections, but you should duplicate pitfalls and problems and include them in just-in-time job aids (physical or online).

Context-sensitive FAQs--done right--can make a dramatic difference in software, and greatly reduce the user's cognitive load.

Motivational bridge between levels


Each "level" includes a preview book from the next level, even color-coded to the new level, that helps motivate and prepare you for moving up. The assumption--and message to the user--is, "Congratulations! You finished level one! Now look at the cool things you'll be able to do in level two, and... let's get started." The motivating message is, "You can't stop now... you have all these new tools and NOW you'll be able to put them to use in these reallly interesting ways..."

In other words, they help the user map their level one skills to things they can now use to get new benefits (but only if they keep going into level two).

Skill/Savvy-based "Reminder Aids"
While level one is about completing tasks -- the user is just trying to get something done correctly and safely--level two is about improving overall skill and knowledge. In Parelli, level two is more about doing things well regardless of the actual task.

For a software app, this could be general reminders and tips. For a programmer, this might be design patterns and best-practice idioms, etc.

In the Parelli level two, you get a big pile of these cards, and you can customize your caribiner (hooked to your belt loop) each day with the things you want to remember, as well as tasks for that day. Each card includes a reference pointer for getting more info (which chapter of the DVD or section of the manual, etc.)

Motivational Progress Map

The best way to keep someone on track is to do two things:
1) Show them how far they've come
2) Show them where they can go next

The Parelli system has three different types of progress charts:

Level ONE
You get a wall poster checklist that lets you see the entire set of skills for this level, and over the 30-90 days they expect it will take, you can continue to check these off. The checklists are color-coded, too, so the "bridge" items from the level two sneak peak are in blue, rather than the level one red color.

Level TWO
Although I didn't show it (mine's at the barn), the level two progress map is much cooler than a simple checklist. In level two, you can take the cards that are on the caribiner and place them in a big fold-out map--that has slots--which you move across depending on where you are with that particular task. For example, in "riding without a bridle", I might start with that card in "just starting" and then as I progress move it into the "working on it" slot, and so on. It gives you a clear visual in one glance for where you are in the entire level two program (which is much more involved than the simple tasks of level one).

The Parelli Official User Group
If you join the monthly-fee official Parelli Savvy Club, you get a "passport" -- a booklet that lists accomplishments from the first three levels, with color-coded stickers to place on those tasks or capabilities as you complete them. Flipping through this booklet is another easy way to see where you are, and it's very motivating to want to keep checking off those tasks (in this case, by writing the dates and placing the stickers).

Motivational Practice Game

This learning game costs users an extra $100... and they're happy to pay it! Besides giving you a zillion practice tips and tricks, the game encourages you to get others involved. And as we know from reverse-engineering passion, the more people connect and engage with others around this activity, the more likely it is to lead to (or reinforce) a passion for that activity.

Bottom line: never underestimate the value of providing fabulous training materials in getting--and keeping--users motivated to get better. And the better they are, the more likely they are to appreciate (and buy) your higher-end versions, evangelize, buy and create accessories, etc.

And remember--if you view these pictures as examples of typical user manuals, they look absurd. But if they were marketing materials for the same product... they might not look so strange. Think about that. (And re-read my previous post on the great gulf between before-and-after the customer pays for something.)

Just imagine... what would it be like if you had learning materials like that? Not in the budget? Charge extra. Why not? Look how much money O'Reilly, Wiley, Prentice-Hall, etc. are making thanks to all the missing/useless/painful docs. Better yet, be the first in your market to blow minds with world-class user learning materials. How long will it take before the companies that do this can start slashing their marketing budgets...

Posted by Kathy on March 1, 2007 | Permalink


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» Showing that users do RTFM from Intentional Design on Managing Content
An interesting blog post was forwarded from a friend about users who not only read the user manual,s but pay dearly to get their hands on them, and attribute their superior product successes to having read them. [Read More]

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» The best user manuals EVER from krys.ca
Following up on my previous entry about Calvin Spealman 's " RTFM Not Just a Disgruntled Reply ", I came across Kathy Sierra 's article " The best user manuals EVER ", where she suggests that users do RTFM, just not the ones that the developers wri... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 11, 2007 11:59:36 AM


Great post, as usual. I also just made the mistake of forwarding a link to it to my wife and daughter, the real horse-lovers in my family. Why do I get the feeling this is going to cost me a lot of money?...

The various components in the Parelli home-study kits are pretty remarkable. I'm wondering though... Have they been able to charge a premium for all this from the start or was it only after they established their high quality brand name? Which came first...the chicken or the egg?

Posted by: Joe Wikert | Mar 1, 2007 6:44:54 PM

Big, big mistake Joe ; )
And you asked an interesting question... apparently in the early days they didn't charge nearly as much, but the pocket guides were hand-drawn stick figures. Then they added video tapes and slightly better pocket guides. The huge jump in quality, production values, and price tag all happened when Linda Parelli and a Ph.D. in Adult Learning Theory completely rebuilt the first two levels from scratch. So both the learning 'content' (how things were taught, order, pace, etc.) AND the format (DVDs + better pocket guides for level one, DVDs and the cards for level two) AND the production quality all happened at once. And by then, they already had a huge following.

With the quality they have now, I think they still would have been able to charge like this from the beginning, but they'd have had to 'prove' it by seeding a large number of users who'd try it and start talking. And by doing things like encouraging their users to do just what I did -- sent your daughter a DVD!

Here's something else Pat Parelli told me, though -- the success of their training has allowed them to charge a VERY hefty markup on their actual training gear (halters, sticks, etc.). Pat said--being frank--that while his equipment was of higher quality than anything else, it was really only 20% better, yet it costs 50-100% more. And all that *extra* markup, he said, was strictly about the power of the brand.

It's really about trust, I think... I know I can pay less for similar equipment elsewhere, but I trust that I'll be getting exactly the right thing from them, and their customer service has always been awesome.

I actually tried to do Parelli nearly 10 years ago, just working from a (poorly done) book, and I couldn't do it. It was a set of instructions but didn't include all the "but what if my horse doesn't do X when I do Y?" and those were the deal-killers for me. My horse NEVER did what he was supposed to when I tried to do what was in the book. It's shocking how valuable those "Pitfalls" and "Troubleshooting" sections are, and they obviously pulled them from the students who've been trying to do these things.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 1, 2007 7:09:06 PM

It certainly sets the bar for training packages for self-learning courses to a higher standard. As always I can detect a hint of passion in your post.

Posted by: Peter | Mar 1, 2007 7:30:42 PM

Peter: There's an 80/20-- just putting context-dependent pieces in one place and including a simple one-page checklist for progress (and navigation through a set of things to learn) would be huge. Forget the cards and the caribiners and the games and the DVDs... a few simple things could make a dramatic difference.

That the bar has been set so *low* in most user manuals (Electric Rain's Swift 3D is a big wonderful exception!) means it doesn't take that much to shine.

So, the passion showed? ; ) And here I thought I was being all subtle...

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 1, 2007 7:45:49 PM

This was a timely post - as always. I am about to create documentation to assist a workshop I am giving, and of course I want to make a kick-ass workshop with kick-ass materials so I can help inspire kick-ass people to -- yes-- kickass. The material is all mind-body ('psychosomatic') so the deeper I can reach into the subject matter to create a "manual", the better for the participants.... this may even be a precoursor project to something completely new - who knows. THANKS for the kick in MY ass!

Posted by: Lauren Muney | Mar 1, 2007 8:08:20 PM

Coming here is happy / depressing thing. Happy because I really learn something, depressing because what I learn here shows me what I've done so far on my book totally sucks and I need to start over, again.
Oh, Bother! Back to it.

Posted by: Stephan Fassmann | Mar 1, 2007 9:05:58 PM

If only programming language courses were taught that way, I might actually manage to self motivate beyond "Kind of interested".
I want to learn a new language to back up my other skills, but trying to motivate myself to spend the hours outside of work learning a new programming language is pretty hopeless, I'm not a driven career man. Maybe one day....

Posted by: CodeMonkey | Mar 1, 2007 10:45:27 PM

Levels system is very powerful, I can see that with my ballroom dances class experience.
However, I am not sure if I ever want to find out what "marITal arts belt system" really means... ;)

Posted by: Rimantas | Mar 2, 2007 1:53:19 AM

That a great article.

Two other texts I admire are Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook and the 1970's American Red Cross swimming program booklets (which I'm trying to get copies of).

Great work!

Posted by: Robert Olliges | Mar 2, 2007 7:20:08 AM

Disclaimer: IANAB (I am not a blogger ;-) However, I am a blog reader, and I've very much enjoyed yours ever since I stumbled upon it a year or so ago. Your passion for what you do is palpable and genuine. With that praiseful preamble, I have a tiny nit to pick with this post -- you misspelled the word carabiner. I didn't know the correct spelling myself, so I looked it up online. A useful mnemonic for the spelling might be to think of the fondness a mountaineer would have for these devices, which keep her safe from falling; is she were Italian, surely she would think of it as "Cara" (dear)!

Posted by: poirmarp | Mar 2, 2007 8:06:34 AM


I'm strongly reminded of a classic of DIY auto repair, John Muir's How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.

You can easily tell original copies from the Sixties, because they've got greasy thumbprints all over them.

Muir groups car-upkeep tasks into three tiers, and created three tier toolkits. In other words, if you had all the Tier 1 tools, you could undertake any Tier 1 job.

Removing the engine was a Tier 2 job.

He didn't have the range of techniques Parelli uses, but he has excellent mnemonics, job aids, and rules of thumb -- like the mantra "front is front," meaning, "even though your engine is in the rear, the front of the engine is the part closest to the front of the car."

Another stellar example is the HTML tutorial begun by Alan Levine back in 1994.

Posted by: Dave F. | Mar 2, 2007 8:12:02 AM

I've never had the opportunity to see Parelli, but I've been to seminars by Richard Shrake as well as both John and Josh Lyons. They are very organized, and very professional. Interesting to go to from both as a horse person, and as someone who is in the printing/publishing business.

Posted by: hdw | Mar 2, 2007 9:14:37 AM


I'm extremely fond of your blog, but there's one thing that I just don't understand...

Horses are big, probably expensive (how much is a horse?), dangerous (I hope you've recovered from you last spill), and smelly (I'm not fond of shoveling poo). So why do you like them so much?

Posted by: Johnny | Mar 2, 2007 9:46:35 AM

Documentation is often written by a group of "technical writers" in a pooled organization. They often have little opportunity or incentive to develop in-depth familiarity with any particular product, and are also often hamstrung by "style guides" which are seemingly designed to make the document as boring as possible.

I once had to conduct corporate warfare against a doc manager to get him to agree that a manual could use the word "you" (as in "you should now do X") rather than "the user."

Posted by: david foster | Mar 2, 2007 10:11:12 AM


The training materials are great and certainly people are willing to pay more for quality. In this example the stakes are also higher. If you screw up training a horse you end up injured or with a resultant bad behavior. If you don't learn to use a camera well you just get bad pictures [or are stuck using auto mode].

Posted by: Julie | Mar 2, 2007 10:23:43 AM

Robert's mention of the 1970's American Red Cross swimming program booklets brought back a flood of happy memories. During the summer between high school and college, I gave swimming lessons in our family pool using the Red Cross booklet for teaching little children. There were ten lessons that started with blowing bubbles in the water and ended with swimming laps using the crawl stroke.

My students were mostly 5 to 7 year olds. After ten lessons, all of them went from not being able to swim to being able to dive in the deep end and swim the length of the pool (and our pool was not small).

Posted by: lstarn | Mar 2, 2007 10:34:17 AM

An additional value of the level code is to allow people to refer to it, as a language tool, a easy way to answer the crucial question : "How good are you with a horse?", a skill convention.

Posted by: Bertil | Mar 2, 2007 11:10:20 AM

Great stuff -- as a science teacher educator, I'm reading this thinking about user manuals as curricula. Generally, science curricula, umm, suck. It sounds like Parelli is one of the few that would stand up well to the curriculum evaluation framework from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Project 2061. (Is horseback riding a science?)

Check out the evaluations here:
Pay special attention to the criteria they used for evaluation. Then think about science textbooks as user manuals for science (and the teaching of science). And think about what you can do as a parent, a teacher or a learner to fill in the gaps that most curricula have so that you can kick ass.

Posted by: Don Duggan-Haas | Mar 2, 2007 2:00:44 PM

Quite a coincidence that I should discover your blog the very day you post about Parelli! I have resisted Parelli at many horse expos over the years simply because he is so commercial, and I was sooo appalled at the sight of all those people carrying carrot sticks who no doubt thought that this one little device might turn them into horse trainers. But your post is so great and really educated me about how Pat and Linda have integrated educational theory about how people learn into their training materials. I may be mellowing! But no, then I read Johnny's post and was tempted to veer off course to get on my soapbox about horses! But I'm resisting the temptation. I'm going to be teaching a software class soon and will be thinking of using the levels approach myself! And no, Don, horseback riding is an ART!

Posted by: Nami | Mar 2, 2007 5:14:05 PM

Just one simple comment and addition to your post.

Bonus Tip: Never make a user feel dumb or stupid through a manual.

It's weird how many manuals I've seen that make you feel dumb after reading it...they usually push consumers to do thins their own way. And probably never buying again from the brand.

Ron E.

Posted by: Ron E. | Mar 2, 2007 10:39:59 PM

forget slashing the marketing budget. think about the tragic waste of ink!

Posted by: Nathan | Mar 3, 2007 10:53:53 AM

I would love to pass this along to the teaching assistants in my Intro to GIS class who teach by handout. Long, boring, handout.
This blog has really helped me think about how I want to approach creating maps and geodatabases that people want to use. Thanks so much!

Posted by: Jen S-C | Mar 3, 2007 1:36:17 PM

this is my first comment on the passionate blog :)
I am amazed and very happy that such a positive, creative and motivating articles and comments are created here almost everyday, this is wonderfull place to visit no matter what industry one is working in.
About the manuals that kick ass :) I want to give credits and big thanks to the Borland (Inprise) software company for the effort they put and the quality they achieve in their integrated help system for the Delphi and C++ builder solutions and even early Pascal and C++ Dos versions. It has been always inspiring to read their help and remain with the feeling that the guys that created it arehappy if the users kick ass by reading their work.
I don't have direct relationship with Borland and I hope my opinion does not sound like some kind of advertisement for them (as far as I know they quitted the development tools business), but I trully love their work :)

Best Regards and Wishes,

Posted by: luben | Mar 4, 2007 12:49:12 AM

Interesting.. Just few weeks ago I was thinking about writing an actually useful manual for some graphic calculators to help my fellow students. The book should be small enough to be carried around, it should be task-oriented and contain troubleshooting next to tasks and stuff.. And then it hit me.. "WTF, why hasn't the manufacturer done this already?"

Posted by: Meak | Mar 4, 2007 2:00:06 AM

Hi Kathy,

Nice post. Though if I understood the article, you have to pay to buy the booklet, which means its not really a user manual, but more like an additional guide kind of thing.

There are companies out there that provide training courses for their products. Should we take this as a sign that they really care about you (they are willing to send someone over to teach you - at a charge), or is it a sign that the product actually sucks and the training is just a tool to mint some more cash?

Do we really need a 3 level guide with exercises, video tapes and tests just so you can write out a letter on a word processor?

We can't really do much about horses. But we can certainly make products easier to use.

I agree with you totally that we need good user manuals - for no extra charge - where good means not just flashy, but people can actually learn from them. Yet, please make the software easy to use too.

Posted by: Siddharta | Mar 5, 2007 6:59:50 AM

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