The polish sausage syndrome, or when all else fails read the manual

The polish sausage syndrome comes from a funny, fictitious manual that did the joke-fax and email rounds a few years ago, which read:

“PLEASE READ THIS OWNER’S MANUAL BEFORE UNPACKING THE DEVICE.

You’ve already unpacked it, haven’t you? You’ve unpacked it and plugged it in and turned it on and fiddled with the knobs, and now your four-year old child, the same child who once shoved a Polish sausage into your new VCR and pressed fast forward, this child is also fiddling with the knobs, right? We might as well just break these devices right at the factory before we ship them out, you know that?”

This was probably written by the frustrated service technician forced to extract pieces of sausage from delicate electronic equipment, or someone who answered one too many telephone calls from irate product users asking what to him were questions with obvious and simple answers.

So why do people only read the manual as a last resort? Well, the fault does not necessarily lie with the user.

Why don’t people read manuals?

There are two reasons:

  • First, deeply entrenched in the human psyche is a little voice that says, “You can work it out – and it will be too hard to find what you need to know in the manual anyway”.
  • Second, they are invariably right about the manual.

Manuals are often hard to follow and some tend to bury the information that users need amongst other related but irrelevant information. Think of the 50 page manual that includes the same information in 50 different languages, or the instructions that fold out into a single tablecloth-sized piece of paper printed in 4-point type.

When it comes to the content of the manual, it is often confused. Many try to answer the questions, “how does it work”, “how do I do it” and “what can go wrong” in the first few paragraphs instead of introducing information in a logical, easy to understand sequence. The result is that the information that the reader really needs is too hard to find. It is too much trouble for most users. A good user manual, on the other hand, should give access to the needed information as easily as possible, unhindered by information that is irrelevant to the task at hand.

The reality is that many manuals are written by someone who hasn’t the time or the inclination to work out what the user really needs. While many products are well designed and engineered for ease of use with such things as colour coded connectors, one-way plugs, warning labels, software that installs using intelligent wizards, and the like, it is a shame that many manuals don’t follow this same path. Manuals should be ‘engineered’ for ease of use in the same way.

What makes a good manual?

A good manual is one that picks up from where the product designer left off. It completes a seamless transition of concepts from the mind of the designer to the mind of the user. A good manual will be as much part of the overall design as the product itself.

In short, a good manual doesn’t just happen, it is planned, executed, and tested with the same attitude, care, and attention as the product itself.

This means that it will be:

  • User-focussed – aimed squarely at the user’s needs
  • Role and Task focussed – supportive of the task at hand
  • Delivered appropriately – readily available and accessible

What is ‘user-focussed’?

This is an approach that gives first priority to the user’s perspective and the tasks that they need to handle. It is applied to the first step in designing good documentation and that is to perform a User-task analysis. This will determine:

  • who will refer to the manual (audience – role)
  • what they need to do (tasks)
  • what they need to know to do it properly
  • what they already know

This type of analysis always brings forth interesting and unexpected results. It will often reveal, for example, that there are actually not one, but two or more distinct groups of users and that they need different types or levels of information. In this case, it is often more efficient to split the documentation so that users are not burdened with information that they will never need to refer to.

The best method of delivery

Depending on the situation, there are several options for delivery the manual:

Online – this is obviously the preferred option when the subject of the documentation is a software application, but it is also valuable for any electronic device that has a display capability. The use of context sensitive links makes the manual more efficient and effective. Just imagine having a help button to press on your VCR or television that gave you step by step instructions for all those obscure but invaluable features?

Paper – the time-honoured method still highly favoured for hardware items and for software applications where there is not enough room on the screen for online help.

Quick reference guides – useful where users are experienced and competent in their jobs and no longer need to refer to the main body of documentation.

Wall charts – often overlooked, this form of communication is very effective where the amount of information is not extensive and can be reproduced at a size that is comfortable to read from a medium distance and absorbed in single view.

Whatever the choice it must be appropriate to the environment of user

Layout and presentation

Layout and presentation are vital in all visual presentations of information – sometimes they alone determine whether a user will read past the first page or not. When designing documentation, you should think about the following:

Choose a readable font. Don’t fall into the trap of using some obscure font that looks impressive at first glance but gives you a headache when you try to read it for any length of time. The same applies to all manner of design affectations such as reversed-out type, stretched type, coloured backgrounds, and so on. Be fearlessly pragmatic. When all is said and done, the best fonts to use are Times Roman or Helvetica (Arial). Research shows that the most readable fonts are the traditional serif fonts such as Times Roman and the minimum size is 10 point. The newspaper people got it right way back.

Don’t try to put too much on the page. A page full of 10-point text with narrow margins looks cluttered and is very hard to read. Proper use of white space in printed documentation is vital to comfortable reading.

Don’t get carried away with colours. The most readable page is white with black lettering, any other combination is likely to induce vertigo.

And there’s much more …

There is another, and equally important, ingredient of good documentation that we haven’t had space to include here – language and writing style. Proper use of language and writing styles makes manuals even more effective by focussing reader’s attention and enhancing readability and comprehension. This subject justifies an article of its own.

The payoff

Does this all sound a bit daunting? The process of designing and developing good documentation is complex and can involve significant costs. But in the end good documentation doesn’t cost, it pays. It often spells the difference between a capable and confident user who gets the most out your product, and one who is wary, unsure, and limited. Guess which one is more likely to buy his next product from you.