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How to Write an Instruction Manual: Work Instructions


Our collaboration has allowed Orkla Foods to optimize the delivery of digital work instructions at crucial moments during the manufacturing process.

12 March 2018

We’ve taken the principles needed to write an instruction manual (and make it great), and applied them to the nuanced world of work instructions for the manufacturing industry.

SwipeGuide takes instructional design seriously. The philosophy and thought process behind why instructions manuals and user manuals are effective is just as important as the content within them. All too often, we see knowledge delivery tools fail simply because of a poor design. 

That’s why we’ve used the best of peer-reviewed academic research to become an authority on effective minimalist instructional design - and delivered this approach to some of the top manufacturers in the world.

Check out our page on minimalist instructional design to learn more about this research in detail.


Better instruction manuals for a changing manufacturing industry.

We’ve all felt the effects of industry 4.0 on the manufacturing industry: smarter machines, greater connectivity, and a blistering pace for production and operation on the shop floor. 

This is good news for companies, but it also means that teams need knowledge-sharing solutions that keep pace with the rapid pace of innovation and production and provide connectivity across a global value chain.

The design and structure of your work instructions make a significant impact on the shop floor. By providing your end-users with clear and to-the-point work instructions, you can expect increased operational efficiency, reduced downtime, and more effective training procedures.


Structure and clarity are key in instruction manuals.

Instructional design experts agree that a combination of minimalism and structure are the key to:

  • Productivity
  • Understanding
  • Learning

Users need instructions that are action-oriented and minimalist, but also instructions that follow a particular structure. The structure of a work instruction needs to facilitate the correct actions and also enable a user to work at their own pace while referencing the material on the go.

According to these principles, we’ve organized our instruction platform in the following way:


Instruction hierarchy 2022


Each work instruction created within the SwipeGuide platform follows this format. Having a consistent approach to structure allows our customers to reproduce quality work instructions with minimal effort. This model is a visual representation of the four key components of writing a manual for the factory floor:

  • Guide
  • Topic
  • Instruction
  • Step

Below, we’ll explore these components in greater detail and learn why they help to create real learning and greater efficiency on the shop floor.


The basic element of every instruction is the “guide.” You can see the guide as the entire paper booklet included with a product, from first to the last page. It contains every topic, instruction, and step of how to use a specific product.  

Default topic



A guide consists of several instructions designed to bring a task from its initial state to its desired state. The Multipacker OCME work instruction consists of a number of separate instructions, demonstrated above, including:

  • Prepare the Machine
  • Prepare divider
  • Safety first

These instructions each contain a certain number of steps, designed to describe individual discrete actions.

digital work instructions structure



Steps are the detailed descriptions within instructions. They show the user the step-by-step process of performing a given task. There is a clear goal in every instruction, and the description of the goal should therefore always be task-oriented and to the point. Let’s take the instruction “Prepare the machine” in the Multipacker OCME work instruction as an example.

The user follows these steps by swiping through the instructions on a mobile device or desktop. 

Each step should consist of a clear visual (static image or short gif) supported by a clear, task-centered sentence. 

  • For the highest level of learnability and clarity, the tasks should be described in active present tense (install, press, click, follow). 
  • Avoid long wordy sentences and we recommend breaking down tasks into two or more sub-tasks when the user needs to perform several actions. 
  • A maximum of 10-12 steps is recommended for your instructions to be effective. 
  • When you want users to memorize a task, limit the information to a maximum of 5-7 steps.

work instruction shop floor

Errors can have catastrophic consequences on the factory floor. Instructional design theory teaches us that the best place to prevent (and correct) errors is within the work instructions themselves. Additional information about a particular step can be indicated with four icons - based on the theory of information mapping:

1. Warning:

Alert operators to potential safety hazards and error-prone tasks. Use analytics to help identify problem areas in your manufacturing workflows.

instruction warning


2. Tip:

Provide a more detailed description with extra information on how to perform the step.

instruction tip


3. Alternative route:

An alternative way to perform the same task with the same result. To illustrate, we've included an example from a popular consumer product below.

instruction alternative route


4. Fixes:

Errors happen. When they do, it’s essential that they’re corrected quickly and effectively. Fixes direct users to the easiest potential solution for a likely error.

instruction fix




According to the experts of minimalist instructional design, work instructions on the shop floor should be constructed in the same manner that you might write an instruction manual for a blender. The product and task may change, but the human brain needs a certain set of parameters to facilitate effective learning and doing.

Follow these simple steps when creating digital work instructions:

  • Structure your work instructions in a clear, step-by-step instruction hierarchy
  • (guide - topic - instruction - step).
  • Use an active tone of voice when writing instructions.
  • Keep it short and to the point.
  • Use a clear visual to illustrate the step.
  • Split up a task in several different sub-tasks.
  • Separate all additional information in icons (warnings - tips - alternative routes - error fixes).
  • Share it with your end-users digitally.

For more information on how to create great minimalist work instructions, check out our page on the topic here.

Picture of Chris

Chris loves to share his expertise on future-proof work instruction software for frontline teams in manufacturing. Particularly, how digital, visual work instructions can make a lasting impact on motivation, productivity, and operational excellence culture.

12 March 2018