Can You Read The Directions?


My wife and I both have pet peeves about bad directions. She has sewn clothing from patterns for many years and has discovered that many of the newer patterns contain mistakes and unclear steps in the written directions. I’ve noticed the same thing in almost every product I’ve purchased over the last several decades. From directions for using my children’s toys to assembling furniture to operating electronic equipment, many steps are vague, out of place, or simply not written well enough to be followed easily.

Recently we purchased a high-priced vacuum cleaner. We found a reasonable price for it and decided to give it a try. My first impression was how well it was made and the practical thinking that had gone into the various features. It works well and is easy to use. The manufacturer had thoroughly considered the design details, and when I read the directions, I was even more astounded. The same attention to detail that had gone into the design also had gone into writing clear directions. Perhaps the directions didn’t decide the purchase for me, but they affirmed the company’s commitment to a good product.

Directions are everywhere: how to assemble a toy and how to install batteries are only two examples. Almost every product on the market comes with a warning, “Read the directions before operating this product,” or “Read the directions before assembly.” Good quality control just about begs for a clear, concise set of directions.

Writing directions demands collaboration. First, the designer must be clear in how the product works. Second, the user needs to be considered. Will a non-technical person be able to do what the technician already understands? Will the writing be clear enough for the consumer, someone who has never seen the product before? Third, writers can add clarity and simplicity. Collaboration between designers and writers can produce more than just good directions. It can produce customer satisfaction.