Rants & Raves

(Don Chance)

Instruction Manuals


Instruction Manuals these days are a real pet peeve of a lot of people.  I’m not even complaining about the fact that each manual is ten times as long as it needs to be.  Products sold in the U. S. must be understood not only by English-speaking people but also by those who speak Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Klingon.  If not, someone may miss the warning that says “STOP:  DO NOT USE CHAIN SAW IN BATHTUB.”

But more to the point, I have a problem with the people who write these manuals.  Or maybe I should direct it to the people who supervise the writing of the manuals.  It seems to me that these technical writers and their supervisors simply do not use the products.  I am pretty certain they have a superficial knowledge of their products, but I am also pretty sure they do not use these products much beyond what is required for their own jobs.  Otherwise, they would realize that an instruction that says “Press button underneath surface” is a bit confusing when there are multiple buttons and surfaces.

Even worse are assembly manuals, which call to mind the three most frighteningly juxtaposed words in the English language:  “Some Assembly Required.”  This is particularly true for parents of young children.  The younger the child, the more badly written the assembly manual.  Assembly manuals for objects to be used for children who haven’t even been born yet are the absolute worst.  Beware the instructions for an unassembled baby bed, which stands in sharp contrast to what assembly manuals for coffins must look like, though even those must surely conform to extensive federal regulations designed to protect the remains from risk of harm.

When you first open up the package of any to-be-assembled item, you are confronted with seemingly enough parts to put together a functional space shuttle.  Then you must take an inventory in case the bozos in packing gave you only 31 flat-head 3/16” screws.  This inventory turns out to be one of the most difficult tasks and requires space the size of an Airbus maintenance hangar.  Moreover, identifying a 7/8” brad from a ¾” brad is pretty difficult, especially when there are supposed to be eight of each and you’re not even sure what a brad is.  To facilitate this inventory, many of the parts are labeled “A”, “B”, “C”, etc.  Unfortunately the labels are virtually impossible to find.  Even when you find one, you are supposed to be able to tell its left side from its right side.  Since when is a piece of wood got a left and right side?

Screwing in or, in some form, inserting hardware into wood is another tricky task.  The wood is often crappy, multi-ply, fiberboard that would split if it came into contact with pureed peaches, let alone actual metal screws.  You have to wonder how the “wood” in to-be-assembled objects that will be used with babies withstands the rigors of constant contact with poop.

And by the time you get to Step 32, with only 16 more to go, you almost always discover that you did something wrong somewhere around Step 8.  Then you have to re-do Step 8 and correct whatever cumulative mistakes occurred in Steps 9-31, by which time you are going to have to call in sick on Monday since you are too embarrassed to admit that your real problem is that you cannot assemble something you bought at Wal-Mart.

But the problem is not with you.  The problem is with the manufacturer.  The products themselves are pretty thoroughly tested and often of shockingly decent quality, but the instruction and assembly manuals are not.  I am sure they are tested, but they are tested by people who know what they are doing.  “Align right joint flange into left thingy” is perfectly understandable to someone who works with the product on a regular basis, but not to ordinary people. 

There is, however, an obvious solution.  These companies should go down to a mall or any shopping area, stop various people, and offer them the product free of charge and $100 or some other reasonable amount if they will test the assembly and instruction manuals and provide feedback.  Get ten or so people to do that and you’ll find out if these manuals are understandable by normal people.

But then, that would take time and cost money.  Far better to irritate your customers, because in reality, once that thing is assembled and functional, which it will be sooner or later, no one really remembers the frustration very long.  In fact, the owner experiences a surge of euphoria for having accomplished the monumental feat of purchasing something at low cost, assembling it (albeit with much frustration), and getting it to work.  He will gladly buy something else requiring assembly or technical instructions.

And the cycle starts all over.



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Last updated: May 27, 2012