How to write product instructions that really work

Are your product’s instructions as awful as this?

How do you feel when you unpack your shiny, new gizmo only to find that the instructions in English are a bad translation and make no sense whatsoever?

When you write instructions for your own products, have a heart and do them properly, so customers are more likely to buy stuff from you again: – here’s how.

Make sure your instructions are written for your audience, not your organization

People who buy products need to know how to assemble/install/use the product as easily as possible. And because many people are technodorks like me, instructions need to be understood by the lowest common denominator.

Logically, then, you might think the best person to write instructions for technodorks like me is someone who knows every last detail about the product, how it was made, how it works, what it does, and what its inside leg measurement is.

In other words, an expert. This could not be further from the truth.

Instructions should never be written by experts

Quite simply, experts know too much. Consequently they are very prone to making the mistake of assuming the reader knows a little bit about the subject matter already. To an expert, the fact that before you begin assembling the bookcase you need to align sections A, B and C with each other may be so blindingly obvious it’s not even worth mentioning.

To someone like me it’s not merely worth mentioning, it’s absolutely essential if I’m not to spend the next three hours wondering why on earth I can’t find any bolt holes that line up.

Equally, instructions should not be written by the sales people, the marketing executives, the guys in the lab, the production staff, or anyone else – even you – if there’s a risk they might have become familiar with the subject matter. Familiarity can breed if not contempt, at least wrongful assumptions about the audience’s existing knowledge.

Instruction writing must match customers’ level of knowledge

Wherever practical, instructions should be written by someone who knows as much as, but no more than, the audience. For any form of instructions to be followed by non-technical users, the writer should assume zero prior knowledge and the best way to ensure s/he does that, is if s/he doesn’t have any prior knowledge her/himself.

Key tips for well-written instructions:

  • Approach it with logic and common sense
  • Don’t assume any prior knowledge on reader’s part
  • Start right at the beginning of the process
  • Use simple, plain language in short sentences
  • Use “active voice, ” not “passive voice” (e. g. “take the lid off now” rather than “the lid should be taken off at this point)
  • Keep each step separate, no matter how simple you think it is
  • If you use illustrations, make sure they’re clear and uncomplicated
  • If using translations, get each language version “reality checked” by a native speaker

Finally, you need to test the instructions on people who are genuinely typical of the target audience. And that means, preferably, people outside your organization. Someone in the next office may not have tried assembling the item before, but is still likely to have some prior knowledge.

Keep an open mind

Still following along the same lines, for any product to be used by ordinary folks in the street, try also to get the instructions written by someone from a totally unrelated department or even from outside your organization.

No matter how thoroughly you know your product, a fresh outsider’s view will often pick up on ways to improve the instructions–or even to improve the product itself.

There is nothing that will blacken the name of your product and your company faster than a customer like me not being able to put your product together easily. Although customers like me will get over it after taking a cold shower and asking the brainy next-door neighbor to interpret the instructions, we’ll probably remember all those bad things next time we’re shopping for the sort of products you sell. And we’ll buy your competitor’s.

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