Who cares about instruction leaflets ?

A Koala Information Blog

April 2014

A while ago, I purchased an expensive pair of branded sunglasses. Out of the case tumbled a folded leaflet, which proclaimed that the leaflet itself was part of the product.

Being involved with information dissemination, and also having an engineering background, I felt this was an incredibly enlightened attitude on the part of the supplier. I have long advocated that documentation is vitally important. Unfortunately, the example I mention above is all too unusual. In this note Iíll examine some of the effects of poorly executed documentation. Iíll also propose a checklist of ideas to improve things.

The antithesis of the example is probably the notes issued with prescription drugs. How many people read them? Probably a very low percentage. Why? Well, for a start they donít look very readable! Typically they are printed in about 6-point typesize, and use loads of words. Result: most people skip it. And yet, if ever there was a case for saying "this leaflet itself forms part of the product", surely this example is it. All drugs have potential side effects, so itís highly desirable that anyone using them should read the leaflet.

Itís time we looked at this in a critical light:

Critical questions

Do your product instructions:

  1. Merely describe obvious things the user could have known for themselves ?
  2. Encourage the user to read them ?
  3. Reduce the chance the user will make mistakes

    Remember, if - or more likely, when - they make mistakes, they will not blame themselves; they will blame YOU.

Taking a positive entrepreneurial view, will your product instructions:

  1. Motivate the user to purchase more, or recommend their management should purchase more ?
  2. Encourage them to recommend your product to their colleagues, associates, friends, family members etc ?
  3. Speak well of your product and your company when networking or socialising?

The instruction set is part of the customer experience

If you canít honestly give positive answers to the majority, if not all of these questions, you need to do something about it.

Using the instruction is part of the customer experience. If that turns out to be a bad experience for the user, then itís going to do you harm.

As always, there is a positive side to this. If you can make the instruction set part of a good experience, then potentially you have created a competitive advantage.

Useability checklist

Hereís my suggested checklist for instruction sets:

  What to look out for


1. Practice the art of BREVITY
  • Sentences should be 8-12 words, certainly not more than 15.
  • There should not be too many sentences.
  • Ensure descriptions are as concise as possible consistent with getting the message across.
  • Cut out the waffle and stick to the point.
2. Strive for CLARITY
  • Avoid jargon, which may mean something to you, but not to the user.
  • Cut out ambiguity.
  • Consider using Simplified Technical English where appropriate.
3. Contribute VALUE
  • Donít just write up the blindingly obvious - your user doesnít want patronising.
  • Instead, brainstorm for innovative IDEAS; use focus group discussions.
  • Come up with things that really provide additional product value.
  • Think about animations; audio; really GOOD illustrations.
You need to receive compliments about your instruction set such as:
  • "The support material you get is wonderful."
  • "The instructions are precise and clear throughout."
If thatís the case they are far more likely to be ambassadors for your cause.
5. Make it MEMORABLE
  • The instruction set will not just in itself be memorable.
  • It will promote positive memories of your product and your company.
6. Recognise its IMPORTANCE
  • It should be an integral part of the product
  • It should help provide clear water between your product and its competitors
  • It should make your product stand out in peopleís minds.

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