User Manuals for People

Humans are messy systems. We don’t work the same way every time. We have plenty of bugs. And we certainly don’t come with easy to read instruction manuals. Unless we write them ourselves.

The concept of “user manuals for people” has been around for over a decade. Originating in executive leadership circles, it has gained traction over the past few years at all levels of organizations. The topic has been covered by Bloomberg / Business Week (2008), the New York Times (2014), BBC Capital (2017), Quartz (2017), and more.

The idea is to provide people who work with (or for) you a guide. An on-boarding document of sorts. A shortcut to learning your quirks and getting down to the business of working with you effectively. Read the articles linked above if you want more in-depth explanations.

I introduced the concept to my last company with moderate success. Within the Technology department, many individual contributors and some line managers participated. They drafted their own during a group session, then published them on the internal documentation wiki. Within a month, three people individually reached out to tell me how reading their coworkers’ user manuals had noticeably improved their working relationships.

I recently read Michael Lopp’s “How to Rands” and loved it. For all practical purposes, it’s his own take on the user manual concept, and it covers more than the rest I’d seen. He goes a step further by licensing it under Creative Commons Zero v1.0 Universal, which waives all copyright interest and dedicates it to the world-wide public domain. I took the liberty of forking my own (copying verbatim, then editing to suit me) and am now officially calling it Marc’s User Manual, 2nd Edition.