Look, there’s a lot of noise online – and offline. So much so that it’s hard to concentrate on the experience right in front of you. Not everyone has the opportunity to spend ages figuring out how to use a new product off their own back, sometimes they need a helping hand. 

Companies are clocking on to the change in consumer behavior and the need for self providing an exceptional customer experience is vital. A major part of delivering that great experience and ensuring a high product adoption rate is ensuring customers understand how to properly use your product through effective onboarding and ongoing training. 

One powerful tool that organizations often overlook is the humble “how-to guide.”

In this article, we’re going to explore:

  • What how-to guides are
  • The value of visual learning
  • The psychology of self-serve education
  • Scalability and consistency
  • Use-case specificity

What are how-to guides?

How-to guides are step-by-step digital instructional documentation that walks customers through completing specific tasks or workflows related to your product or service. 

While they may seem basic, well-crafted how-to guides can be an incredibly powerful resource for customer onboarding, learning, and ongoing education.

How how-to guides lead to stronger product adoption

Getting your customers to use your product every now and then is one hurdle; getting them to actually adopt it as part of their day-to-day routine to solve their pain point? That's another challenge entirely. Product adoption is crucial for the success of any software service. But here's the thing: getting customers to fully embrace and utilize all of a product's features can be challenging without proper instruction. This is where how-to guides shine.

Providing clear, visually-rich, step-by-step documentation that demonstrates how to execute specific workflows and functionalities, how-to guides equip customers with the knowledge they need to confidently navigate a product.

This hands-on learning experience accelerates time-to-value and drives higher product adoption rates. Customers are more likely to stick with and fully leverage tools when they understand how to optimize the capabilities through guided documentation tailored to their use cases.

The power of data visualization and storytelling
If there’s one thing to be said about customer success, it’s this: it’s all about building strong, lasting relationships. To do this effectively, you need to clearly understand your customers’ needs, challenges, and goals. This is where data visualization and storytelling become critical skills.

The value of visual learning 

Humans are incredibly visual learners, with 65% of us being visual learners, according to Visual Teaching Alliance. Visualization is important across all facets of business, particularly when dealing with complex information like data, which needs to be interpreted as meaningful insights and compelling narratives through the practice of data storytelling.

When it comes to customers, your product’s information won’t get far without visually stimulating instructions, guiding them through your product’s complexities. Now here’s the question: what can how-to guides do to get their message across?

How-to guides lean heavily on visual learning through screenshots, diagrams, videos, and other multimedia embedded directly into the instructions. This visual approach makes the learning "stickier" and helps customers really understand each step rather than just reading blocks of text.

Tolstoy offers an extensive library of video tutorials that become accessible when users engage with the guided learning experience. These videos feature friendly instructors and well-designed user interface text, neatly organized into sections to allow easy navigation. This enables users to watch only the content most pertinent to their needs.
Source: Tolstoy

The psychology of self-serve education 

At Customer Success Festival New York 2023, Steve Cornwell, Founder & CEO of Northpass, shed some context on the rise of self-serve digital customer education:

“Over the past 10 years, the internet has become a vast open library for everybody to learn from. 

“You know, if you wanted to learn how to play guitar or any instrument, you can now do that from pretty much any musical legend online if you needed to. If you need to cook to impress, there are tons of celebrity chefs whom you can learn from on YouTube. If you need to become an expert negotiator, there are masterclasses for that. 

“I think all of this has dramatically changed the way we as consumers expect to be able to learn online today. My point is this: this is how we expect to be able to learn these days – anything we want, whenever we want, wherever we want. 

“And that change in our personal lives has also made its way into our professional lives and now our customers. I think most customers expect to be able to learn about our products and our services the same way that we as consumers in our own lives. 

“But what's crazy is that’s not happening today. That's not the way most businesses are training. [Northpass] ran a survey of thousands of SaaS company websites and determined that only 14% of them are actually using some form of digital academy to train customers, which is remarkable given that in our normal lives.”

The power of customer education
If your customers aren’t continuously uncovering new ways to get value from your products or services, you’re missing a vital opportunity to captivate them properly. And if they don’t know how to use your product, well, there’s only one thing for it: they’ve got to learn how to use it.

We’re all busy people with hectic calendars, so trying to find the time to learn how to use a product to solve a pain point can be a struggle. Not everyone has the time, or ability to jump on a call with a dedicated CSM or Account Manager. In fact, most wouldn’t want to. 

For quick solutions to simple problems, customers want self-serve resources they can access instantly and conveniently. Having how-to guides and documentation at their fingertips allows customers to find the information they need efficiently, without scheduling calls or disrupting their workflow.

How-to guides enable self-serve learning which gives customers the ability to learn at their own pace and on their own schedule. This makes for a better onboarding experience by letting customers digest information when they are ready rather than being overloaded upfront. It also provides an ongoing self-help reference long after the onboarding has been completed.

Perhaps the most crucial point of all: Self-serve learning improves a customer’s chance of success with your product because they’ll be able to better navigate their way around it and be self-sufficient.
How to onboard new customers (the right way)
Onboarding new customers are one of the activities a Customer Success Manager (CSM) has to do with varying degrees of regularity.

Scalability and consistency 

We’d be lying if we said the convenience of how-to guides was purely beneficial to the customer. 

It’s actually in your organization’s best interest to produce high-quality, tried-and-tested how-to documentation. Yes, developing these guides has an upfront investment – you need to invest in a person to create videos and a platform to host this multimedia effort. However, this approach scales incredibly efficiently.

Once you’ve got the bones of one how-to guide, the same guide can be leveraged across unlimited customers, clients, employees, or partners. This ensures a consistent learning experience, eliminates training drift, and makes scaling seamless.

Use-case specificity 

One size rarely fits all when it comes to product training. With how-to guides, you can hone in on specific use cases, workflows, features, and user types. This allows you to ensure customers are learning precisely what they need to be successful based on their specific requirements and roles rather than overwhelming them with too much general information.

How-to guides clearly have a vital role to play in optimizing the customer education experience throughout the entire customer lifecycle – from initial onboarding to ongoing training and support. While sometimes overlooked, investing in developing a robust library of how-to documentation can pay massive dividends in customer satisfaction, product adoption, and long-term customer retention.


Customers expect on-demand, self-serve learning experiences that fit their preferred pace and style. 

How-to guides meet this need by delivering visually engaging, task-specific instruction in a scalable and consistent format. Investing in a comprehensive library of how-to documentation opens up a whole new world for organizations.

Using the convenient and visual medium of how-to guides presents a powerful opportunity to enhance customer onboarding, accelerate product adoption, foster self-sufficiency among users, and ultimately elevate customer satisfaction and long-term retention.

Of course, building this content requires an upfront effort. It’s not something you’re going to be able to fully do justice if your organization is just starting out; economically it’s probably not going to be feasible. But in the long-term, payoffs in customer education and success make how-to guides an indispensable tool. 

As customer expectations around learning continue to evolve, embracing methods like how-to guides will be critical for delivering exceptional product experiences.

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