Instruction manual techniques...for technical instruction manuals
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I recently reread part of the Counsel Resolution [of Europe], 20 years old... (December 17, 1998) relative to instruction manuals for technical consumer goods.
Interesting reading! A gold mine for a technical writer who may not know what to include in his manual, or his “instruction manual”, as we have “forgotten” to call these publications in the current “technically” correct vocabulary. No indication of the author of this text, but no matter, it is obvious that the author(s) were experts, well aware of the principles of minimalism. In the end, if it turns out that members of the University of Twente had participated, it would not surprise me at all.
If implementing all of these recommendations in 1998 may have seemed tedious, current content management by components systems make these principles much more accessible.
Here are a few edifying excerpts.
Instruction manuals: still useful?
Formulating usage instructions
a) Guidelines, standards, legislation, etc. concerning instruction manuals are taken into account;
b) functionality trials are carried out in order to assure that the information supplied with products is workable in practice. Hence, in a trial for this type of device, a list of tasks to be carried out and the instruction manual project are supplied to an adequate group of consumers. They are then observed during execution of the tasks. In the end, the observations are compiled on standardized forms;
c) the content of the instructions for use is structured on the basis of the daily routine operations performed by the user: the content of a manual is established on the basis of the tasks which must therefore be performed by the users of the product (task-orientation principle);
d) the instruction manual gives only information that does not arise in an obvious manner from the product per se (a sufficiently clear mechanism does not require special explanations) or from the knowledge or experience of the user or even from the character of the task to be carried out (Thus, principle of communicating necessary missing information).
This is why I don't disagree with the minimalism principles set out by John Carroll!
(Un)fortunately, who takes the time today to carry out recommended trials before developing their instruction manual?
Due to the limited lifetime of products and interfaces that are more and more ergonomic, instruction manuals are more or less useless. Yet, often it is still worth it to invest in real tests!
They can sometimes affect the products' design, and will surely have an impact on the cost of technical support for users. As for the task-orientation principle, it hasn't aged a bit.
Instruction manual: minimalism
Typical headings in this type of instruction manual are as follows:
list of the product versions covered by the manual, including their various features;
table of contents (when there are lengthy instructions),
brief description of the tasks that the product can perform,
information appropriate to the action taken for each task, including instructions and safety precautions, such as advice on installation and commissioning (task 1, task 2..), any general information on handling precautions not yet included in the job description, maintenance and sections on fault finding and repair,
addresses and direct customer support lines,
index (for products that perform several tasks, or for long instructions),
removable instructions related to key data (for products that carry out several tasks or consistent tasks carried out in several separate operations);
list of typical usage errors, their causes and possible solutions;
information related to ease of use of the product and methods of possible recycling;
information as to the availability of instructions on media other than printed paper, such as video tapes, CD-ROMs, an Internet site, etc.
Here again, we find key principles of minimalism points. Such as tasks, awareness of breakdowns and errors, table of contents and index...
It is interesting to see the equal emphasis placed on the accessibility of this type of instruction manual on other media.
Structured writing as a remedy
Separate instruction manuals for various models of the same product
Instruction manuals sometimes include information on various models or different versions of the same product. It is preferable to be able to have separate instruction manuals for each model. Especially when confusion could result in a safety issue. However, we must admit that a single manual concerns several products when the differences between the product versions do not result in a difference in activities (for example, when the version for a fax machine presents additional features on certain models, but for which the basic operations for sending a fax are the same).
And bam! Another argument in favor of structured writing systems: modularity and filtering are the two lifeblood of technical writing.
Facilitating the work of technical writers, solidifying the customer relationship
Through its Calenco software platform dedicated to structured technical writing, NeoDoc has been developing tailor-made solutions to facilitate, optimize and safeguard the work of technical writers for more than 12 years. The solutions are based on technical writing basics, as mentioned here, and structured writing. They place the user at the center of writing. Because facilitating access to the right information for the user also adds value to the product and solidifies the customer relationship.