When the lawn mower, grass trimmer, and oven all broke within a month, one had the chance to explore the exciting world of user guidance also in one’s spare time. As a professional writer, it is always interesting to study user guides written by colleagues, but as a consumer, the same guides may occasionally make you blow a gasket and get new grey hairs.
The user guides of the new lawn mower and grass trimmer both began with a cartoon. The pictures were too tiny for anyone over 40 years of age to see properly, and they contained so many details that they ended up being just a jungle of lines. Arrows and numbers were used to make the reader understand – something. Picture 2 looked like as if it’s trying to explain how to switch on the device, but in picture 3 the device was in pieces and an arrow showed where to insert a screw. Logical, eh?
A text-oriented person of course doesn’t mind the graphics but heads straight to the textual section. The text in both the guides consisted of numbered steps, but soon it was apparent that the content was legal and safety information that had been numbered for some reason. The heading “Using the device” sounded promising, but step 1 said to remove the battery before putting the device parts together. “Working with the device” did not provide any instructions, either, but explained that the device should be switched off in cases of emergency. Well, how can you switch it off when you haven’t been told how to switch it on in the first place! All in all, the ”user guide” was just 4 pages of legalese, at the end of which it said in all caps: KEEP THIS USER GUIDE FOR FUTURE REFERENCE. Even though there’s no guidance whatsoever in the guide. Legal and safety texts are very important in a user guide, but so would be the actual user guidance, too, to help the poor reader get her new equipment up and running and rescue her lawn.
The user guide for the new oven was a curiosity. At first it thanked the reader for purchasing the device (unbelievable that this tradition is still alive in 2019, when we all know how much it annoys readers) and then suggested spending a few minutes for reading, to learn to use the device in the best possible way. Sounded reasonable.
The user guide began with an explanation of the parts and icons, albeit in an odd way: “[icon] Alarm timer When you want to set up function: Alarm timer”.
Below the heading “Daily use” started the actual guidance, which consisted of short, numbered steps. Step 1 commanded to switch on the oven, but did not tell how. After that came 8 pages of tables that listed all the menus and settings of the oven from stollen to ciabatta and sliced turnip to potato dumplings. I’d have just wanted to switch on the oven and set the temperature to be able to cook my dinner.
There was a promising heading after all the tables: ”Setting up the oven function”. 1. Switch on the oven (how????). 2. Confirm by pressing the OK button. 3. Set the temperature (how????). 4. Confirm by pressing the OK button. At this point, this reader was ready to throw away both the user guide and the oven.
Still today it seems to be very common that the ”user guide” merely describes the device, but the actual instructions are missing. Use case based writing has not spread in our profession, even though it is all about real guidance. It should not be difficult for a tech writer to step in the slippers of a person using the oven and think what the user wants to do: 1. Clean the new oven from any factory residue. 2. Switch the oven on. 3. Set the temperature. 4. Switch on the timer. 5. Switch off the oven. After that we can discuss all the fab functions and menus of the oven.
Of course, the writer is not always the one to decide what and how to write. Occasionally, there may be someone stubborn in the team who insists that the user guide should be written like it has always been written. Sometimes these guys don’t even care when the writer brings up the needs of the end user. Nevertheless, the writer could insert the actual user guidance somewhere in the document.
No wonder that user guides continue to have a bad reputation.