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Manuals are the worst: 3 better ways to absorb information for technical skills

Liam Scanlan
COO and Co-Founder

This article is one of our favourites from around the web. We've included an excerpt below but do go and read the original!

Original source:
  • January 24, 2023
  • Digitisation

In today's fast-paced world where there is a shortage of skilled experts and not enough time to train them, businesses have a strong motivation to document critical tasks and knowledge.

Documentation helps ensure that important information is retained within the organisation and easily accessible to those who need it.

As a medium of documentation, manuals are an important tool in the technical world, but they don't always provide enough information to ensure that the person reading them can perform the task correctly.

Creating effective and user-friendly manuals is not always an easy task (it’s the worst!).

It requires a different skill set than performing the actual task and is time-consuming. But, the need to have clear, concise and easy-to-use documented know-how is still essential for the overall performance of the organisation and its customers and even its business continuity (plenty of key person risks in every organisation).

Luckily there are more effective and cheaper ways of achieving the same (and better) outcomes.

1. Visualise your traditional manuals

Did you know that the brain identifies with visual content 60,000 faster than text?

So, make it basic with diagrams! A picture paints a thousand words and people prefer visual aids especially when conveying hands-on technical processes.

An easy example we are all familiar with is IKEA. Yes we joke about assembling IKEA furniture, but imagine if every flat pack had a text-only approach to assembly instructions.

Naturally, there are some pros and cons with this approach.


  • Pictures are easier to our brains to consume than long-form words
  • Our eyes gravitate towards diagrams
  • Images can translate easier for users native to other languages than those the instruction is given in


  • Not every process can be reduced to a single diagram action
  • Pictures do not provide the nuance of how the task should be performed well
  • Illustrations often need to be basic for interpretation, and so it becomes harder to provide multiple steps without filling multiple pages.
  • Because illustration is subjective based a reader’s lived experiences, it can become dangerous to use only imagery in high-risk scenarios

2. Digitally centralise your traditional manuals

Let’s take it to the macro level.

Whether your manuals are visually based or not, ensuring people access all of your manuals and learning content from a central data repository is one of the most important things you can do for scalability.

However, if you have ever had to double check the version number of a manual then chances are you are yet to solve this headache.

There are plenty of options for centralising learning content out there, but when looking around be sure to remember one thing:

People don’t want to waste time searching for what they need.

So, it’s crucial to help them find the necessary information quickly. Look for solutions that have features like custom tables of contents, a search bar, intuitive categorizing, clear headings, and cross-linking. Within the online materials themselves, make sure users are able to easily move back and forth between sections, as well as between hierarchy levels.

3. Move to video-based learning

TL;DR: Video > Manuals

If a picture paints 1000 words, then video is even better (insert joke here about 25fps vs 30fps). 

In addition to the brain preferring visual content, it remembers and retains a combination of audio and visual information x5 more than what it reads.

A YouTube-like experience of capturing and passing on technical know-how is superior in several ways below, but more than that it's how people actually want to learn (my own story here).

We don’t read the manuals, and the younger the workforce the more likely that is to be the case. 

A few other facts:

  • Most people do not use all the features of the products that they own and use regularly.
  • Younger people are less likely to use manuals than middle-aged and older generations.
  • More educated people are less likely to read manuals.
  • Over-featuring and being forced to consult manuals appears to cause negative emotional experiences.

Real-world examples

Many examples of video-based learning exist for traditional white collar jobs like Go1 and other LMS platforms.

In the technical skills space however, videos are only just becoming a standard medium to train employees on how to properly perform their roles. It’s a competitive advantage that is setting companies apart from the pack.

From our experience we have seen:

  • In mining, with critical labour shortages, an ever increasing complexity of equipment and the tyranny of distance - innovation is happening to put know-how into the hands of teams on the job. Vendors and suppliers like Hexagon are using solutions like HINDSITE to spread best practice across their field teams and miners.
  • In manufacturing, videos can be used to coach your employees and new customers using your on-demand video content library, or via remote mentoring calls. All content is transcribed and translated for local usage, and customers can upload their own content within your workflows as evidentiary data. 
  • In the Utilities industry, videos can be used to train employees on how to troubleshoot and fix technical issues 

In summary

Manuals will always have a role to play in the technical space. However, if there is a requirement to capture and broadcast actual know-how for people to apply skills, capturing them with video is more effective. It is also a more scalable, faster, and cheaper way to do business.

Video allows workers to have a "look, see, and do" experience on the job, rather than relying on their fallible memory of a manual they might have read once upon a time.

Interested in what a video-based approach to learning could look like for your frontline? Let’s chat!

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