The wordless manual: ideal for an international company like IKEA . . . and users like me

November 19, 2007

billy.jpgStill getting settled in our new house.
We have a ton of books (just ask our movers) and have decided to set up a small library at the back of our large living room.

The Billy bookshelves at IKEA were just the ticket for this project. Steve measured the wall space, did the math, and then picked out 7 large units and 5 narrow ones from the warehouse on the bottom floor of IKEA’s Atlanta store. They were delivered Saturday and on Sunday we began assembling them.

IKEA is a Swedish company with stores all over the world, from Iceland to China to Saudia Arabia. Imagine the translation costs for each set of assembly instructions for the multitude of build-it-yourself furniture they sell!

No worries. They do it exclusively with pictures! Ikea instructions

Here are some examples from the 8-page assembly instructions for our bookshelves. Note the warning messages.  

All of IKEA’s assembly instructions use the picture format with large, clear line drawings. When text is required, it is written succinctly and appears in 14 languages.

These wordless instructions succeed because IKEA builds simplicity into their products from the get-go. A minimum number of parts. Similar brackets and screws for each product. They have to do this because most of their customers assemble them themselves.

We had the option of paying for IKEA to come out to the house and build the shelves for us, but our final bill would have been two times the cost of the furniture.
Ikea wordless instructions

Here’s a link to the entire booklet for the shelves we purchased. All the IKEA instruction booklets are available online.

Should technical writers feel threatened by this?

No, but it demonstrates how effective  illustrations can be in technical communication. An appreciation for and understanding of the appropriate use of pictures should be part of our toolkit.

Well, gotta go. We’ve got 9 more bookcases to build and 326 boxes to open and sort before our Thanksgiving guests arrive.

Ikea parts

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The Buttered Blogroll

November 18, 2007

I’ve volunteered to write a monthly column for our STC Chapter newsletter that highlights some of the more interesting posts on the tech comm (and beyond) blogs. I’m calling it “The Buttered Blogroll.” Seems appropriate as the big Thanksgiving feast arrives.

The column will appear here as well. If you have any recommendations, let me know.


E-mail woes

November 14, 2007

Bell South/ATT eighty-sixed my e-mail account so if you are trying to reach me, be patient. It should be up again soon.

For all the gory details, read Steve’s blog.


“Getting to know your iron”

November 13, 2007

Moving is a trying experience under most circumstances. For married couples it can be particularly challenging as the new terrain reveals hitherto unknown differences in household behaviors. Compromise, perseverance, and 8-hours sleep each night are the keys to survival during this transition period.

Take for example, learning your new appliances. As renters for many years, we never had the pleasure of dealing with them, so it was interesting to see how each of us approached our first use of our new KitchenAid dishwasher.

I am not a manual reader — shocking as that may seem. I put the dishes in the racks, the silverware in the basket, and took an educated guess that the little indentation inside the door was where you put the soap and the Start button on the outside was how you turned it on.

But when Steve insisted instead that we consult the literature provided by the manufacturer before handling any moving parts, I relented in the spirit of compromise. (He had, after all, allowed me to take over the larger bathroom.)

Turns out a new KitchenAid owner receives not one but three manuals. We set aside the first one labeled “Installation Instructions” because the man who sold us the house had kindly installed the dishwasher for us already.

The other two were entitled “Consumer Reference Guide” and “User Instructions.” Why two separate documents? And why was some information in one, but not in the other? For example, the Consumer Reference Guide had detailed instructions on “Loading,” while the User Instructions included a Troubleshooting Guide that I would normally associate with a reference guide.

We read them both and I have to admit that we learned a lot about how to get our dishes clean and keep our KitchenAid in tip-top shape through the coming years.

The reference guide contained no safety information, but the user instructions covered this area extensively. As with many manuals, the first page included a section on the symbols used for safety messages.

The most important was a black exclamation mark inside a white triangle.

This is the safety alert symbol. All safety messages will follow the safety alert symbol and either the word “DANGER” or “WARNING.” These words mean:

DANGER: You can be killed or seriously injured if you don’t immediately follow instructions.

WARNING: You can be killed or seriously injured if you don’t follow instructions.

Get the difference?

I was curious to see the DANGER warning in action within, but could find no examples of it in the manual.

Later I had to buy an iron because I couldn’t find my old one (even though I distinctly remember packing it). I grabbed a cheap one at Bed, Bath, and Beyond in case my original showed up after we opened all the boxes. It was a Shark 1400 Watt Iron.

Shark. Nice name for an iron.

Following Steve’s lead, I made sure to read the instructions before tackling my pile of wrinkled laundry. Good thing, too. The first instruction was in small print on a yellow tag attached to the cord.

WARNING: The internal soleplate must be cleaned before first usage.

Please first use the iron through two to three full water tanks and use both continuous steam and burst [sic] of steam; this will remove impurities inside the soleplate that could stain your fabrics:

Please note new iron may have some water inside it was tested on the assembly line.

Two to three water tanks in the middle of a drought? Clearly, this $20 iron was more complicated that it appeared. I made myself a cup of tea and settled down for a more serious read. Fortunately, there was only one manual. My favorite section was called “Getting to Know Your Iron.” I happily read on into the night and became well-acquainted with the Shark before the evening ended. As a result I even understand the intricate workings of the internal soleplate.


Mike Hughes throws his hat in the ring

November 8, 2007

This may be old news to some of you, but I’ve just heard it.

Dr. Michael Hughes, STC Associate Fellow, UX guru, Atlanta STC chapter leader and volunteer, author, frequent presenter at WritersUA and STC events, blogger, and proud grandfather is running for STC 2nd VP at the international level. If he wins, he’ll be the STC’s president in 2010.

His platform is posted. His campaign brochures are at the printer, and the bumperstickers will be out next month. Stay tuned for details on the televised debate schedule. ;>)

Mike will be speaking at our chapter meeting this month on “The Anatomy of a Help File.” This is a good chance to meet Mike and talk to him about your concerns and ideas for STC. He’s a good listener.

He’s one of the few STC leaders who has embraced blogging. This will be an advantage to him in the campaign because he has a ready-made “bully pulpit” (as he puts it) from which to elaborate his vision for STC. (Check out the new pic!)

This is all by way of saying I will be supporting Mike, in case you didn’t get that already.


When we last left our hero . . .

November 6, 2007

. . . she had fallen off the blogging horse and went missing in the wilderness for forty days.

We’re happy to report that she is back in the saddle!

I was so overwhelmed with work and personal stuff recently that my blogging suffered and I shamefully neglected reading my favorite tech comm bloggers except for the occasional peek at what Tom Johnson was up to.

In September and October I was traveling every other week to deliver training at power plants. My trainees were shift workers, so our classes were held at 6 and 6:30 in the morning. A couple of the plants were in remote corners of Maryland, so my wakeup call was at 4:30 and I had to be on the road by 5:30 am. Training sessions were 1 1/2 or 2 hours long with 1/2 an hour breaks  in between. Lunch was brought in and then we kept on going until the night shift guys came in at 4:30 pm. After a day like that, all I wanted to do was have a glass of wine, grab a dose of comfort food for dinner, and hit the sack.

Add to all of that the unpleasant experience of being herded through the Hartsfield-Jackson security lines (don’t forget to take off your shoes!), jittery nerves during turbulent flights, unexpected delays, and being away from my loved ones. Boo-hoo.

Not surprisingly, when my last trip ended, I came down with an ear and bronchitis that knocked me out for a full week.

In the meantime, Steve and I decided to move out of the apartment we’d been living in since 1999. We bought a house and moved in last Friday. In between trips out of town, I was madly packing while trying to find time to do the fun stuff like picking out a refrigerator, washer, dryer, couch, etc. The movers pulled up to the apartment just as I was emerging from the fog of affliction. It took 8 hours to move all the stuff and another four days to clear out the jetsam and flotsam in the apartment that we failed to pack or decided to toss. Argh!

We’re now happily unpacking in our wonderful house. Abby is adjusting well to her new surroundings and getting to know the dogs in the neighborhood.

As we set up our new appliances and began to learn how to use them, I was reminded of my earlier defense of the manual and the ongoing need for good user documentation for mechanical things. I figured I’d better get back to my blog. Over the next few days I’ll also troll through my aggregator to see what the others are writing about that may need the benefit of my comments and opinions.

As you might know, I’ve missed out on a lot of STC activities lately, but I’m off to the Atlanta Council meeting tonight to see what’s up with the chapter and humbly offer my volunteer services once more.