About instructions…

Being reasonably logical and literal in my approach to instructions I get confused when something I understand to mean one thing actually means something rather different or when part of an instruction is omitted because everyone knows that.

Let me digress for a moment to better illustrate my point:

Many years ago when I was in the military (the Corps of Signals to be precise) I was sent on a course-cum-seminar to learn how to write user manuals for soldiers. Bear in mind that these manuals had to be quite unambiguous and therefore had to be written so that an untrained or semi-trained individual could, by following the instructions, make effective use of the equipment. Effective that is because LIVES may depend on the user getting it RIGHT.

All of us had a number of years experience in the job and had previously been on instructor courses and I clearly remember that on my course we often presented the SAME LECTURE over and over only to be told several time that we had failed before we got it right.

What, you might ask, did we fail on. It was not the actual USE of the equipment once it was working it was the SETUP.

For example, we would fail because we did not TELL THE STUDENTS to connect the power source. We then failed again for not precisely describing HOW to connect the power, such as ensuring battery polarity was correct. Again we would fail – “You did not tell them to SWITCH THE EQUIPMENT ON

As you may imagine we would respond to these criticisms with a rejoinder along the lines of “…but everyone KNOWS that”. The reply would be “YOU CANNOT RELY ON THAT – LIVES MAY DEPEND ON EACH STEP BEING LOGICAL AND LITERAL AND UNAMBIGUOUS”.

An example: – think about using remote controls to programme televisions, decoders or recording devices.

At one time I found that after following –  TO THE LETTER – the instructions in my remote programming manual – and those for front panel programming –the programmes did not STICK. My younger neighbour came over one day and programmed the recorder for me. I followed each step as he went through the instructions but I noticed him doing something that I could not relate to a step in the booklet.

When I asked him about it he said he was pressing MENU at the end of each step but, when asked, he could not show me where it gave that instruction in the booklet. I then learned that to SAVE steps there is often no key marked SAVE and it may be menu or enter or something similar – and that that step – that INSTRUCTION rather – is, more often than not, omitted because the designer/inventor (not user, note) ASSUMED that EVERYONE would know to do that.

The INSTRUCTIONS just DID NOT reference how to SAVE each step.

Many user instructions exist, not only for electronic equipment, where the writer and/or developer of the item does TWO THINGS that create confusion:

1. Assumes knowledge – everyone knows THAT – on the part of the user/buyer.
2. Uses in-house jargon so that the words used in the description do not match what the user/buyer is looking at.

…anybody looking to hire an instructions writer…?