Overcoming "A Failure to Communicate"
Even if you don’t remember Cool Hand Luke, you remember, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” That line has outlived the movie because the problem is ever with us.
Nowhere is a failure to communicate more dreaded, yet more common, than in assembly or user instructions for almost anything. Writing advertising for any serious brand is assigned to professionals. Writing instructions goes to a rookie or, ugh, an engineer.
The ability to write instructions that any dummy can understand is not a job for engineers or just any writer. I hate to think how William Faulkner might have written instructions for, say, a computer set-up or a baby crib.
Experts find it hard to think like a beginner, harder yet to communicate with one. Remember the first time a ski instructor told you to put your weight on your downhill ski while you were hugging the mountain?
Say a new computer modem comes in the mail from Comcast. With it come two lengths of coax cables, an Ethernet cable, a power cord, cable tacks, and 165-word instructions. Before it’s over you need five 800-number calls for help.
The modem change itself couldn’t have been easier. It was the instructions that made it hard. One set of instructions was written for two different customers. One who is replacing a modem and one who does not have a modem.
To replace the modem, all you have to do is unplug three cords from the old modem, and plug ’em into the new modem. The instructions could have been written that simply with another simple set for the customer with his or her first modem.
There are a couple rules to writing instructions for stuff like this. Never use pronouns. “It” and “they” confuse users. Call each part by its name every time it’s mentioned. Write everything on a “yes-and-no” basis. Tell what to do. Then tell what not to do.
Do not fail to tell what to do after assembly. Such as, where the “On” button is.
Or in this case, it was not possible to get on the Internet until the guy at the 800-number had “activated” the new modem. Yet, nowhere in the instructions did it tell you the new modem had to be activated at headquarters.
Nothing’s more frustrating than reaching the ah-ha! moment of completion but the thing won’t work.
Instructions are necessary for almost everything we buy. Whether it’s installing a modem or understanding an insurance policy. Few owners know diddly about their various insurance policies. There are buttons on my three-year-old car that I still don’t know what would happen if I pushed.
Every company needs to be sure its customers know what they bought. Know how to assemble it. How to operate it. How to get the most out of it. That means instructions written by somebody who knows all about it and still can think like somebody who knows nothing.
Overcoming “a failure to communicate” is worth the effort and expense. •