June 22, 2003

notes on technical writing - no 1 of occasional series

Last night my mother out law complained that she'd installed her new scanner while it was locked, and it now didn't work.

As she and her husband reread the instructions they found a large bit at the beginning (in a box, by itself) that explained that one really, really should unlock the scanner before you tried installing it, or it was likely to break. These are the sort of people who actually read instructions, so missing this important piece of information was unlikely to be due to lack of care on their part.

I was bitten by the same "Anything in a box shouldn't be read" phenomenon in a law exam. The exam typesetting people indicated a 20%-of-final-mark important piece of information by pulling it completely out of the main text and putting a large box around it.

When I finally found the instructions (5 minutes before the end of the exam) I was confused as to why I hadn't seen it earlier.

I used to think it was just weirdness on my part, but now I have evidence that other rational, instruction following friendly people have the same problem.

Conclusion: If you have something really important to say, include it in a separate box (if you must) but also include it in a sensible place in the body of the instructions. In the case of the scanner, a removable sticker on the lid would also have been helpful.

I am thinking of writing a strongly worded letter to The Times.

.carla (who is interested in distressingly obscure things occasionally)

Posted by carla at June 22, 2003 11:59 AM
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