RE: The world's most frequently read instructions?

Subject: RE: The world's most frequently read instructions?
From: Geoff hart <ghart -at- attcanada -dot- ca>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, "'Peter'" <pnewman1 -at- home -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 1 Sep 2000 07:00:05 -0400

Peter Newman observes:
> What I would think are probably the most read and followed instructions
> in this world are: ambiguously written and grammatically incorrect...
> the instructions identifying the room for me to use to answer a call of
> nature, will only say something like "Man."

Or nothing at all; I don't have a sign on the door of the WC in my house, not
even an ambiguous icon. Which raises the interesting point that even a
relatively complex activity (figuring out where in a large shopping mall they
architect hid the toilets and more specifically, the ones you can use without
someone calling security and whether the guys' toilet has a change table for
junior, who hasn't yet figured out the toilet interface yet) can require very
little documentation. Once you've learned the metaphor, you can use it
everywhere else that follows the same metaphor--and where the metaphor changes,
you can find yourself in trouble. I find this notion to provide some
particularly interesting parallels for computer operating systems:

- Unisex toilets: Although the functions of the bathroom are (with a few
exceptions) pretty much identical for men and women, men and women carry out
the functions in different places in the aforementioned mall. Kinda like
figuring out which of two similar control panels you have to seek out for
certain activities: do you use the Regional, Language, or Keyboard controls to
determine how to get accented characters directly from the keyboard? And what
about different operating systems, in which all these functions are in the same
place? Kinda like the difference between mall toilets and home toilets!

- User interface: Just what can you put down the hole anyway? It's not obvious,
and since there's no <ahem> online help, you have to figure out for yourself
what you can and can't flush. And if you guess wrong, you're going to have to
hire an expert to get the system working again. Kinda like installing software,
isn't it?

- Hidden in a specific type of location such as a side corridor, which isn't
particularly convenient to get to, when it would make sense to put it somewhere
close to hand. Kinda like when I was setting up my home PC's version of Outlook
so that I could use it for Internet e-mail; I finally gave up trying to figure
out where they'd hidden the settings to add an e-mail service (the software
arrived preconfigured to use LAN e-mail instead) and called technical support.

- Resources: You want to be sure that the appropriate resources (toilet paper,
soap and water) are present before you begin using the (ahem) software; if not,
you could find yourself in trouble. Kinda like making sure you've got enough
RAM and system resources before you use new programs.

- Intuitiveness: The user interface makes no sense whatsoever until someone
teaches you the metaphor. Having taught two youngsters to figure out how to
find the hot and cold water taps in two languages, I have a fair bit of
sympathy for the notion that nothing is intuitive: the labels are H and C in
English, and C and F in French, and not all plumbers install the hot on the
same side. Plus, what's with this standard nonstandardisation thing, with hot
on the left in some places, and on the right in others? Kinda like figuring out
for the first time that you shut down a computer from the Start menu (Windows)
or Special menu (Mac).

- Maintenance: You have to clean out the system every once in a while, and if
it "crashes", you'll have to hire an expert (known as a plumber). Kinda like
the occasional maintenance we're supposed to perform on our PCs with virus
scanners, disk doctors, and deleting temporary files. Plus, do you hand the
toilet paper so that the free end is against the wall, or away from the wall?
(Not to start an off-topic thread. Maybe Deb could turn this into a techwr-l
poll? <g>)

- Speaking of the system utilities, just where do you put the toilet paper? My
current bathroom places it directly across the room from the toilet, which is
no problem if you've got adult-length arms, but doesn't work real well for my
kids. So I added a roll atop the toilet tank so they wouldn't have to fall of
the toilet while reaching. Kinda like the "one size fits all" approach of most
operating systems, isn't it? And the need for utilities that let you adapt the
system to your own needs?

- Productivity despite a suboptimal design: You can accomplish significant
quantities of important work even though the room isn't really designed to
support this function. Raise your hand if you've ever escaped to the bathroom
with a good book (or even a user manual) just so you could get some time to

Then there are all the things wrong with the rest of the room: uncontrollable
shower temperatures, a room that's too cold when you step out of a warm shower,
inadequate ventilation that encourages the growth of mold, bathtubs that become
deathtraps for seniors, medicine cabinets that don't lock automatically to keep
out kids, no status light to warn you when you're running low on resources, and
so on. It's a wonder we can use the place at all!

> Does the sign "Men" indicate that the room is intended to be a place
> where I can find a man?

Is George Michael on the list? George? Any comments? <gdrlh>

> The point of this rant is to
> remind the group that while we may carry on about good grammar vs. bad
> grammar the purpose for technical writing is to effectively communicate
> information. If the communication can be done with one word the meaning
> of which is generally understood by its intended audience, then the
> writer has done his/her job effectively.

Which is an excellent point, and thanks for raising it. Though now that the
coffee's kicked in, suddenly I'm finding myself feeling like withdrawing to the
<ahem> thinking room to ponder further... <g>

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- netcom -dot- ca
Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada
"Most business books are written by consultants and professors who haven't
spent much time in a cubicle. That's like writing a firsthand account of the
Donner party based on the fact that you've eaten beef jerky."--Scott Adams, The
Dilbert Principle

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