Digitize user manuals for less clutter, easy retrieval

User manuals are a necessary evil. When you bring home that new TV, blender, or printer, you set it up, try it out, and tuck its user manual away somewhere. Chances are you’ll never look at it again. But, you might, and that’s why you can’t throw it away. So, it gets tossed into a junk drawer or set on a shelf in the basement or crammed into the closet with all the other manuals you’ve stashed in there, just in case. These things are the definition of clutter. They sit around and do nothing for years and years. Wouldn’t it be great to store them completely out of sight yet have them instantly available, whenever you need them? Digitizing them is the answer. With a little bit of time and some free software — plus one very cool trick — you can achieve User Manual Nirvana. In this article, I’ll show you how to:

  1. Get manuals into your computer.
  2. Use the nearly ubiquitous Evernote to make your manuals accessible from your digital devices.
  3. Ensure that every manual is ready as soon as you need it with NO searching required (the cool trick).
  4. Reduce frustration and repair time around the house.

Get manuals

The first step, of course, is to find digital versions of your paper manuals and get them into your computer. There are several ways to do this, and I’ll cover three.

Go To The Source

You best bet is to look online, and your first stop should be the manufacturer’s website. For example, here’s a link to the manual for HP’s Officejet 6500 Wireless All-in-One Printer. If you can’t find the manual you’re after by visiting the manufacturer’s site, you’re not out of luck.

Check Third-Party Websites

User-manuals.com offers a large selection of user and service manuals, mostly for large appliances. The manuals on this site aren’t free, and will charge you about $8.99 per manual. The site’s search feature works well, and lets you narrow your inquiry by brand. Another option is theusermanualsite.com. It stores thousands of product manuals and a huge, searchable list of brands and products. What’s really nice is that theusermanualsite.com is supported by an active community of users who will respond to your requests. Theusermanualsite.com requires a free membership. There are other manual sites available, but I’ve had the best luck with these two.

Scan It Yourself

If the manual is not too long, scan it. Many are only long because they contain several languages. You can scan the two, three or four pages that are in your language and disregard the rest. If you don’t have a scanner, don’t worry! There’s a great iPhone app called Piikki that’s useful in this situation. It’s meant for taking photos of receipts, but really you can use it with any piece of paper. Piikki is very good at identifying the edges of paper and grabbing a readable, useful image. From there, send it to your computer.

Of course, you can also take a photo with Evernote and get it right in your database that way. More on Evernote later in this post.

A quick note before I move on to the next section. Don’t overlook “homemade” manuals and similar supplements. A few years ago, I had to replace the belt on our clothes dryer that turns the drum. While I had the machine apart, I sketched how it came apart, where the parts belong, and how it all fits back together. Today, I’ve got a scan of that drawing for future reference (and yes, I got it back together again).

Now that you’ve got your digital user manuals, store them in a fantastic, nearly ubiquitous digital database called Evernote.

Evernote can be your digital database

We’ve written about Evernote before and for good reason. It’s a dead-simple way to store just about anything that’s digital, from manuals to ideas, from music to packing lists. Best of all, it’s nearly ubiquitous. There’s a version for just about any device you own, as well as the web. I treat Evernote as my digital filing cabinet. Evernote stores information in what it calls “notes.” Similar notes can be grouped into a “notebook.” In our case, one note will be one user manual, and all of those notes will be gathered into a single notebook called, you guessed it, “Manuals.” Here’s how to set things up.

Create a Notebook

First, create a notebook. Fortunately, the process couldn’t be simpler. On the left-hand side of your browser window, right-click (that’s Control-click for you Mac users) on the grey area where it says “Notebooks” and select “New Notebook.” Name it “Manuals” and you’re all set.

Create a Note

The exact steps required to create a note depend on the device you’re using (iPhone vs. Mac vs. Android device, etc.). I’ll review how to do it in a web browser, as that’s the same for everyone, and leave you to suss out the (similar) process on your computer/tablet/smartphone of choice.

  1. Navigate to Evernote.com and log in.
  2. Tap “+ New Note”.
  3. The note creation screen appears. Enter a name for you note (like “DVD Player Manual”).
  4. Click “Show details” and enter “manuals” as the tag. This is important as you’ll see.
  5. Click the attachment icon (it resembles a paperclip), navigate to your manual and attach it to the note.
  6. Select “Manuals” from the Notebooks drop-down menu to put it in the proper notebook.
  7. Click “Done”.

That’s it. Repeat the process with all of your manuals. Once you’ve done this on one device, those notes will be available on every other device that you have that runs Evernote. Adding them can be boring, but now for the fun stuff.

Find manuals when you need them

I promised to teach you a cool trick. This isn’t it, though it’s still pretty nifty. You can search for a term in Evernote and then save that search so you don’t have to type it over and over again. Plus, Evernote is smart enough to update the results for you.

In the Evernote app for the desktop, enter “manuals” in the search field and hit Return. Look at the results to make sure they’re accurate, then click on the File menu, and then choose File and then Save Search. Give it a nice name (I suggest “Manuals”) and you’re all done. From now on, all you need to do is click the search field and “Manuals” will appear there for you. Just give it a click.

Here’s another cool bit: saved searches sync across devices. That means, once you’ve created the saved search on your computer, it will be available on your smartphone as well.

OK, here’s the super-cool trick I’ve been promising you.

Access manuals from the appliances themselves

While doing research for this article, I came across this brilliant idea from author Jamie Todd Rubin. His idea is to use QR codes, Evernote, and sticky paper to create almost immediate, no-search access to your digital user manuals.

QR Codes are those funky, square-shaped boxes of scanner code you might have seen, similar to the one at right. A QR Code reader (like this free one for the iPhone), can read the information it contains and perform a resulting action, most often opening a web page.

You can make your own QR Codes for free with a tool like this one at KAYAW QR Code by providing the link you’d like it to point to. Every Evernote note has a unique URL. To find it, simply open the note in your Evernote app and select Copy Note Link from the Note menu. Then make a QR Code with that URL, using the free QR Code generator linked above. Once that’s done, print the page, cut out the code and stick it to the side or back of your printer, blender, DVD player, what have you.

Now, whenever you need the manual for that device, all you need to do is scan it with a free QR reader app and presto! Evernote launches and opens that exact manual for you. No searching, no typing. Ingenious. If you don’t want to use the Note URL from the Evernote app, open the target note in a browser and copy its URL. That will work, too.

There you have it: digitize your user manuals to greatly reduce clutter, keep them close at hand on a smartphone, tablet, or computer, and use QR code stickers on your devices to let THEM retrieve your manuals for you. Have fun.

14 Comments for “Digitize user manuals for less clutter, easy retrieval”

  1. posted by Jesse Kaufman on

    Make sure to recycle those manuals, rather than just throwing them out! iTunes/iBooks works great for managing PDF manuals … love having all of my manuals literally in my pocket most of the day 🙂

    Also, you can find “special” manuals online that you wouldn’t normally get with your purchase … eg: my washing machine has a special manual for techs to help troubleshoot problems and show which parts need to be replaced … that allowed me to replace the door latch assembly for $75 (parts and shipping) and spend $0 on labor! 🙂

  2. posted by Sue G. on

    I have a dedicated plastic envelope (letter size) to store all manuals–easy peasey contained. I can understand the advantages for going digital and recycling the physical copies, but the number one reason I access this file? Not to look up directions or repair something, but to include the manual when donating said appliance or widget as result of decluttering. So, consider pitching the doodad with the manual.

    And, I agree with Jesse K, searching online for manuals has yielded time and money saving results!

  3. posted by Pranay Sanghavi on

    David et al,

    Pretty soon we’re coming up with the master unclutterer for the papers that matter not just to you, but to YOUR FAMILY AS A WHOLE.

    that makes all the difference. Stay tuned.

  4. posted by Christine on

    This idea is brilliant!

  5. posted by Rashelle on

    I have to say, one of my favorite things about living in the digital age is the ability to look up and retrieve user manuals online instead of running around looking for something that may or may not exist. It sure saves a lot and time and effort!

    I also wanted to add that using forums and chats are also helpful for troubleshooting problems. Chances are, if you’ve experienced technical difficulties, someone else has too.

  6. posted by lynn on

    Good idea. I have some manuals that I need to throw out but I was keeping them because I thought I may need them one day.

  7. posted by Kirsten on

    I use a website called BrightNest.com. You can keep an inventory of all of your appliances, flooring, wall covering, etc. Once you enter your appliance brand & model number, the system starts searching for the manual. They send you an email when it’s been found or unsuccessful (very rare). Now I’m going to go the next step and add those manuals to my Evernote so they are always at my fingertips! Thank you!

  8. posted by FionaJ on

    I find having a dedicated folder – one in the house for household ‘homed’ items and one in the shed for externally ‘homed’ items. Easy reference.

    To thin it down, I extract the English sections (seems to cull manuals down to 5%) restaple and pop straight in my folder.

    Less time scanning small booklets and I think it is quicker to grab my folder than boot up the computer. Also, as mentioned, when passing on item, grab associated manual.

  9. posted by WilliamB on

    I prefer to have the paper manuals for several reasons.

    1) Much easier to skim through. This is particularly important if you don’t know the exact name of what you’re looking for. (“What does that light mean?” for example, when you don’t know what to call that light.)

    2) Anyone can get to the manual and read the manual. If I have it on my computer, only I can get to it. If I have roommates, each of us needs an e-copy of each manual.

    3) Much easier to flip from one section to another, when several sections are required to figure something out. I find this happens a lot.

    I like FionaJ’s idea about getting rid of the non-English sections. I keep my manuals in a folder; getting rid of those sections would slim it down considerably.

    BTW, I also staple the receipt to the manual, which is convenient but not, by itself, a reason to keep the paper manual.

  10. posted by Lena on

    The HomeZada website has a place on the home inventory listing for manuals to store digitally. You can also share your inventory with other family members. It is important to have the inventory for insurance purposes. You can also scan the receipt and attach to the item’s listing.

  11. posted by Kay on

    Tip from a user manual writer:

    Many companies these days are eager to offer an interactive Q & A web product, instead of simply a paper manual. Try running a search that includes the name of a help documentation program. Some common programs include Robohelp, Sphynx, DocBook, Flare, HelpSmith, and ActoStudio.

  12. posted by Vanessa on

    Nice thought, but digital clutter has become as big a burden for me as physical clutter. Storing things digitally requires good organization, filing and regular backups.

  13. posted by Scott on

    I agree with Vanessa.

    I have two of those vertical document holders (the ones that have an angle side that is open, but the front/back is flat with a label. I put all of our manuals in those, mostly grouped by categories (home items vs electronics). We keep them in our closet with the flat side out with the label.

    I would argue that 8″ of shelf space is much less clutter than the digital clutter these ideas are using up. Time scanning, time organizing, etc. When I go to add a manual to my system and it doesn’t fit, I quickly go through and usually find 2-3 manuals for things I no longer have, so it sorta self-cleans itself…I doubt most that are scanning and storing their files would rarely clean out the digital archive, which means there would be an ever growing amount of files.

    Also, there is no “memory” involved for me or my family, with one exception – “where are the manuals?” With a digital system, I would have to teach other family members whose computer/apps/service(s)/logins/passwords/etc are required just to access this info.

    Don’t get me wrong – I really like most of the ideas mentioned here. But way too often, we (I include myself here) overcomplicate so many things in the name of “decluttering” – complication is also a form of clutter.

  14. posted by Marie on

    I have not had to scan a paper manual in ages…maybe I’m just lucky, but every time I’ve bought an appliance or piece of electronics in the past several years, I’ve easily found a PDF or JPEG replica of my manual with a quick Google search. If I had to manually scan in my paper copy, it would never get done.

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