What are good product instructions?

Product instructions as an expertise

    Good product instructions are worth every penny and more than that. How come? One just has to think of the reduction in costs for any helpdesk if product instructions are both complete and understandable. Although opinions differ, the reduction in costs for a helpdesk could be close to 60%. How to write good product instructions?

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    Before answering the question how to write good product instructions, one other thing is very important. This is the issue of completeness. No matter how well instructions are written, if they do not cover the complete task at hand it’s all for nothing.

    Being complete before being correct

    An example makes this clear. A father asked his son and daughter, both around 10 years old, to write down how to prepare a sandwich with peanut butter. It turned out that they forgot to describe obvious instructions like fetching a plate or opening the jar. In the latter case, the kids forced the father to brutally open the jar with his knife.

    This was all for fun, of course. But this YouTube example illustrates the point the father was trying to make. We all too easily forget the necessary ‘chain of events’ in order to get a job done.

    This familiarity with certain tasks can have grave consequences. For example, when a engineer writes down what to do in case of a loss of pressure in an airplane cabin, he could be inclined to think that a certain valve has to be checked on its status. He might not be aware of the necessity for the pilots to first put on their oxygen masks. Indeed, confronted with the urgent task ‘How to act in case of decompression’ pilots of a business jet did not put on their oxygen masks. They concentrated on the valve(s) instead. This led to the death of both crew and passengers.

    That is why it is so important for technical writers to really think through each and every task. A good way of checking if a task is complete, is performing the product instructions yourself. Or better still: let the target group do that.

    Being correct: what does that mean?

    This being said, what constitutes a good product instruction? They are several principles to think of. Here are the most important ones.

    • Be as short as possible. Product instructions are instructions. They are not stories.
    • Subdivide instructions. Do not write “Open the bottle and pour the liquid in the tub”. Write “1. Open the bottle” and “2. Pour the liquid in the tub” instead, This way, every instruction is identifiable and easy to find.
    • Use demarcation between instructions. This could be a line or a blank white space.
    • Create new tasks if a task includes more than eight instructions. Readers should not get lost in a task!
    • Give each task a clear-cut title like “Charging the battery” or “Filling the watertank”. Tasks should be as easy identifiable as individual instructions.
    • Use imperative sentences when writing product instructions. The imperative “Fill the bottle” is less ambigiuous than, for example, “It is important to fill the bottle”.

    When taking the importance of both completeness and correctness into account, product instructions become topnotch. This is especially so if additional imagery is present. After all, a picture can tell you more than a 1,000 words.