Best Practices in Payload User Guides

In the aerospace industry, payload user guides, affectionately known as “PUGs”, are key customer facing documents that describe a company’s payload service offerings. An industry standard, these guides are often technical in nature and help customers consider their purchasing options.

Like any sort of ‘starter guide’, ‘user kit’, or early sales collateral, PUGs are a critical touchpoint in the customer journey: They contribute to a customer’s first impression of a service provider. A great PUG tells a story about the company, its offerings, and the customer experience. It’s an opportunity to:

  • Support an ongoing dialogue and foster a relationship with the customer
  • Empathize with the user’s needs, concerns and circumstances
  • Convey the company’s beliefs, values and core value proposition

After reviewing existing guides and speaking to industry leaders, I’ve identified some best practices for designing an effective PUG:

  1. State your purpose
  2. Don’t assume the user is technical
  3. Show rather than tell
  4. Describe the customer journey
  5. Let your brand shine
  6. Make it personable

Below, I describe these best practices further and include examples of PUGs that exemplify each practice.

1. State your purpose

This is a simple point of clarification that not only helps customers effectively use the PUG, but determines how the PUG should be designed in the first place. The PUG should answer: What is this document for? When? Why? For whom? What is this not for? Surprisingly, this isn’t always clear.

 Example: SpaceX

The Falcon launch vehicle user’s guide is a planning document provided for customers of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.). This document is applicable to the Falcon vehicle configurations with a 5.2 m (17-ft) diameter fairing and the related launch service (Section 2). This user’s guide is intended for pre-contract mission planning and for understanding SpaceX’s standard services. The user’s guide is not intended for detailed design use.

– “User’s Guide Purpose” from Falcon’s User Guide, January 2019, Page 1.

2. Don’t assume the user is technical

A common grievance I hear about in the payload sales process is the communication barrier between non-technical customers and highly technical service providers. Translating technical knowledge can, in part, be mitigated though the use of plain language, fewer acronyms, and visual design (see the next point).

Example: Virgin Galactic

While coasting, [SpaceShipTwo] will ‘feather’ its wings and tail booms—activating a unique and highly reliable mechanism first proven by SpaceShipOne—in order to achieve an extremely reliable re-entry. In SpaceShipTwo’s feathered configuration, the entire tail structure is rotated upwards about 60˚, creating high drag as the spaceship enters the atmosphere. This method of reentry allows for lower skin temperatures and smoother g-loads during reentry compared to most other space vehicles, such as sounding rockets.

SpaceShipTwo: An Introductory Guide for Payload Users, Web005, May 27, 2016, Page 9.

3. Show rather than tell

Visuals can speak louder than words. When designed with intention, visuals are powerful and memorable tools for conveying and simplifying complex concepts (i.e. technical systems, flight profiles, requirements). The importance of clean, readable, smart, and beautiful visual design cannot be overstated — it’s not just about making things “look pretty”.

Example: Vector

– “Sample Payload Configurations” from Vector-R PUG, VSS-2017-023-V2.0 Vector-R, Page 12

4. Describe the customer journey

The customer journey clarifies the service experience and sets the user’s expectations. In turn, this allows the customer to understand the level of engagement and relationship they can anticipate to build with the provider.

Example: Astrobotic

– “Payload Experience” from Astrobotic Peregrine Lunar Lander PUG, October 2018, Version 3.0, Page 8

5. Let your brand shine

It’s easy to dismiss the PUG as a technical document. Rather, it is an expression of a company’s personality, values, style, and tone and should be consistent with the company’s overall brand identity. From fonts to imagery, the PUG creates a first impression with the customer.

Example: Blue Origin

– “Introduction” from New Shepard PUG, July 2018, Page 9

6. Make it personable

The PUG is an extension of a sales conversation and in this spirit, has an opportunity to bring more of a human touch to the customer-provider relationship. This can be as simple as using inviting language like “welcome” or “meet ___” and introducing the people behind the company.

Example: Rocket Lab

– “The Rocket Lab Team” from Rocket Lab PUG, August 2018, Version 6.2, Page 47

There are also opportunities to make the PUG an even more effective and engaging touchpoint for the user. Here are a few ideas:

  • Create a quick reference guide – Customers who receive a PUG are exploring their purchasing options. Condensing key information from the PUG into a 1-2 page document or “quick reference guide” can help customers socialize the PUG and find critical and relevant information at a glance.
  • Make it interactive – PUGs often exist as standalone physical and digital documents. Using different types of media (audio, visual, etc.) can not only help convey complex technical content in more expressive and interactive formats, it can accommodate to the different learning styles of the user. For instance, using virtual reality to visualize the payload environment can help bring the PUG to life.
  • Case studies – Case studies can build credibility and confidence in the service provider. Highlighting the way a company is able to adapt and personalize their offering to a customer is a testament to their customer experience.

As a part of a greater system of touchpoints in the customer journey, the PUG serves as a strategic tool early on in the sales process. The best practices above can help ensure a PUG is designed well and with intent. What would you add to this list? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!