Guest Post: The How-To of How-Tos

Beginning this year I will be featuring guest bloggers from time to time. I hope you will find their articles as interesting as I do.

Designing Operation or Assembly Instructions

You just bought that new toy for your kid, or maybe a new piece of furniture. Then you try to assemble it, and frustration takes on a new meaning. Or you purchase a new electronic device, read through the giant manual, and wonder if the people who created it ever actually used the device.

This is an example of poorly designed instructions.

Good instructions are more than an afterthought, they are an essential part of a good product or service, and as such, require the skills of an instructional designer. If you’re a designer who’s been hired to create operation or assembly instructions for a client, your approach is similar to any design project.

Learn from the client:
• What their objectives are
• What is the age group targeted?
• Is assembly required?

How about using the product:
• Will the instructions be used in the U.S. or internationally?
• Does the client prefer illustrations, words, or both?
• Black and white or color?
• Will the instructions be printed or used on a web site?

Understand the product
Obtain the product and familiarize yourself with it, though you may only receive a prototype, which rarely works or works as it should. Meet with its product designers, engineers and marketing representatives to learn exactly how the product works. Each party will have a different emphasis on what they think should be included, but their input is only a guideline—your job is to create the best approach for this particular product.

Write an outline of all steps
If possible, I like to get all copywriting and photography for the product, even if it was for another purpose, such as packaging. This enables me to learn more about what the company considers important.

Take photos of each step
These photos don’t need to be perfect, as you’ll be using the photos just for reference. You may need to “fake” some of the shots, do some minor retouching, or combine different photos to get the final necessary image.

Begin the drawing process
Based on your outline, draw each step, tracing the photos, creating simple illustrations. Use different stroke weights and/or gray areas for emphasis. Why draw illustrations rather than use photos? Clarity. Illustrations can omit or de-emphasized, (using a lighter stroke or color), parts that are not needed or add unnecessary complexity and confusion. Try to explain without words. What in each step can be shown rather than written? Some consumers prefer images rather than words, or the reverse, so at times it’s good to have both. If multiple languages are used, illustrations alone become more suitable. Clients, particularly engineers, may prefer words, but your job is to explain to the widest audience in the best possible way.

This is an example of well-designed instructions.

Additional considerations include showing all relevant parts (if the product needs assembly), including what tools may be needed (but not included), on a contents page. Try not to change perspective in each illustration unless identified, such as back view to show a new detail. Use arrows rather than words to show, say, direction of turning a screwdriver clockwise. Show anything that may be out of sight but necessary for operation or assembly. You may need to visualize what needs to be shown but can’t be photographed, then use your drawing skills to create that perspective. Consumers are not interested in reading a novel just to use a device so the instructions final length is a consideration. If these instructions are to be downloadable from the web, consider the download time for someone with a slow Internet connection.

Think through the process, as if you are the consumer, and, similar to that old adage for real estate, simplify, simplify, simplify.

Jan Rasmussen is a graphic and web designer in the Lakewood/Long Beach, CA, area. For over 11 years she worked for Mattel, Inc., creating instructions, both simple and complex, for a variety of products, including toys, electronic games, and dolls such as Barbie and Polly Pocket. Jan and her guy, Jim, like to camp in the middle of nowhere, usually in the desert, by picking a track on a map and driving to see where it goes. In addition to Jim, she lives with three of the best cats in the world. Jan’s website:

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Filed under Guest Posts

2 responses to “Guest Post: The How-To of How-Tos

  1. anita

    Dry technical work to me, but oh SO important! Liked Jan’s website and her beautiful drawings 🙂

  2. Jon Weeldreyer

    Anita – that rocked! Loved the humor. Loved the simplicity.

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