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What are the differences between the three, especially in this context:

User manual

User guide

User instruction

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4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There is considerable overlap among the three, and to some extent they can be interchangeable. They can be coupled together or with other terms, as in instruction manual or reference guide. In addition, there are a number of similar terms like handbook, guidebook, primer, or vade mecum.

Manual refers specifically to a reference document which provides detailed information about operation and maintenance of a product. Manufacturers will often provide an official manual for a manual to provide assistance to its owners or users: cars, for example, usually come with an owner's manual, machinery with an operator's manual, and official documentation for Unix programs with manual pages.

Guide is a more generic term. Whereas manual implies a written document, one that could be a booklet for a video game or a large book for a complex product such as a car, a guide can be just a card, or in another medium altogether such as a video. It may be a detailed reference, but it can also indicate a very simple overview or instructions for a small subset of features.

Because "manual" has connotations of dense, boring text, some manufacturers or technical writers prefer the label "guide" for what would traditionally be called a "manual."

Instructions is the most generic term, and may be synonymous with directions— step-by-step guidance on how to perform a specific task or function. A manual or guide will include many sets of instructions. Used alone, however, "instructions" can refer to the simplest explanatory text— push cap and twist to open, or use other door.

The presence of user in the phrases you cited suggests an electronic or software product , in which case I would say all three phrases you cited are synonymous. For example, Apple labels the documentation section of its website as "Manuals," yet the documents themeselves are the iPhone User Guide, iPad User Guide, and so on.

I think it would be very rare to be supplied with three different references labeled user manual, user guide, and user instructions. In such a case, I would expect the manual to be the main, canonical reference; the guide to be a short overview of features; and the instructions to be the most rudimentary introduction to the use of the product in question.

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1  
A fantastic and thorough answer. –  user16269 Apr 6 '12 at 8:58

Agreeing with Choster, I believe a manual is the official, comprehensive reference to the operation and maintenance of a product or device. Manuals may also provide conceptual information, such as design theory. Some "all-in-one" manuals are comprehensive enough to include information that would otherwise be found in separate guides or instructions, such as usage scenarios, diagnostic procedures, installation instructions, etc.

A guide coaches the user on how to use a product effectively and efficiently, typically by providing application examples and usage scenarios. Some marketing professionals prefer using the term "guide" instead of "manual" without regard for this distinction because "guide" sounds helpful and easier to read.

Instructions are simply procedures (presumably tested procedures) for accomplishing specific tasks. The instructions can be contained in a manual or guide, or they can be standalone documents such as instruction sheets for assembling furniture or replacing a battery.

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Agreeing with chessmath and choster, I'd like to add a few cents of my own. User documentation may refer to subject matter i.e. Project, Team, Test, System, Administrative, Marketing or Miscellaneous types. For every such subject matter, certain instructions (for using i.e. a user guide) or reference manuals need to be created for packaging it along with a certain product or service. IMHO, there's only two types of documentation;

  1. Reference Material
  2. Instructional Material

From here onwards, you can start building (or expanding) certain documentation requirements specific (or as required by law) to a product or service.

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Manual is related how to operate something (usually an electronic device). The word comes from Latin "manus" hands and in this context means operate something with your hands.

User guide give us the idea of introducing some device giving all the aspects and capacities as if you were doing a tour to know each delightful task that your device can do.

User instruction is related to give you instructions for you do a given task then you should follow strictly the instructions to performance well an activity.

Summarizing:

Manual focuses on the (Object device): How to operate it.

Guide focuses on all the capacities of the device.

Instruction focuses on leading you to do determined tasks on a device.

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