Re: instructions

Subject: Re: instructions
From: "Clayton Bennett" <cjbennett -at- qwest -dot- net>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 03 Jan 2001 13:07:15 -0600

The analogy is so good, but no one has made it yet:

>> Boiling water, stove tops, open flame, or glowing electric stove elements are
not for children.

> ...at what AGE would YOU ... think children should be allowed to use a stove?

I'm the father of two small children. My daughter is 3-1/2 years old, and my
son is 1-1/2. I'm also the writer and editor of many kinds of instructions,
ranging from international corporate policies on ethical employee conduct to
online help systems for proprietary CAD applications. I feel qualified to
make these comments.

Instructions intended for a general audience -- such as one might reasonably
expect for a ready-mix food product -- should be clear enough for ANY
interested user to follow the first time, with the desired results. This is
not too much to ask of cooking directions. If I understood it correctly,
this was Michele's original point.

While the innate skills and previous experience of any two ten-year-olds
will differ, so will those of any other two users who share characteristics
by which a user group is defined. (Yes, I know that's a lousy sentence, but
I'm in a hurry to finish this message and go clean up the blood.) A child
who is allowed to prepare food unsupervised should also be able to read and
follow directions for such a simple product.

Now, about children and other inexperienced users: When my daughter
determined she would pour her own juice, she didn't wait for my permission.
She flung open the refrigerator door and lowered the heavy half-gallon
pitcher to the floor, where she had placed her cup. Her aim was good, but
she didn't stop in time. Twice as much went on the floor as in the cup. She
helped clean up, but I did most of the mopping (as usual).

Instead of scolding her, I said I would allow her to try again the next time
she wanted juice. She had a personal interest in learning a skill, and
understood how having that skill would benefit her in general. That's how we
might define a motivated user -- someone we want to encourage. The chief
difference between helping her learn self-sufficiency at an early but
appropriate age and endangering her safety is supervision, which I equate
with the background information we provide in the instructions we write.

In rearing children, I have plenty of time to help them learn. First I let
her stand on a stepstool next to me as I washed the dishes. Next, I let her
rinse the unbreakable plastic ones. Eventually, I let her rinse all the
dishes, knowing that some might break. I'm slowly working her toward an
understanding of washing, and so far, she hasn't been cut or scalded. (Come
to think of it, no dishes have broken, either.) Of course, I keep the
sharpest things out of her reach, but even that will change before long.

In guiding the user of a set of instructions, I have far less time. Instead
of years, I have sentences, maybe a paragraph at best. So I have to make
assumptions about the user's knowledge and disposition toward the item being
used. In the two examples above, the employee manual and the online help
system, I could safely assume fear and hostility along with unfamiliarity.
That made the background information more important, but also made it more
urgent to get to the point quickly (as I haven't bothered to do here, and I
still have to get the antiseptic wipes from upstairs).

The common thread between these two kinds of training is simple: Know your
audience. For successful communication, you should also care enough about
members of your audience to anticipate their likeliest misunderstandings.
The people responsible for designing a package that misinforms users about
the product's use just haven't taken enough care. This is true whether the
product is a car, a VCR, or a box of macaroni and cheese mix.

Finally, about the blood: A loose pit bull treed my faithful kitty Ben just
as I started to write this message, and I had to coax his Belgian lop-sized
self out of an oak tree after the first paragraph. He bloodied most of his
claws in his hasty ascent, and I need to clean them up to help prevent
infection, and to protect what few items in the house he might stain with
them. But he has been sitting on his window seat this whole time, not on my
new office rug, so I carried on. Now it's time to tend to his tootsies.

-- Clayton Bennett
cjbennett -at- qwest -dot- net


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