Have you ever had the following experience? You buy some new gadget – a TV set, a blender, a microwave oven – and you open up the box, fish around for the documentation, pull it out of its plastic protective sleeve that’s usually fallen to the bottom of the huge, brown cardboard box, and flip through it. Your heart then sinks as you read the instructions for set-up and use. They make no sense, or if they do, it’s because you’ve been able to piece together the strings of words originally written in another language. To be fair, the original language may not always be Chinese or Japanese, though many electronic gadgets are manufactured in those countries. I’ve identified the problem as ‘hyphenated English,’ and it’s a thorny one that has frustrated me for years.

It’s fairly easy to identify the major culprits: they’re usually big electronics firms that sell a wide range of products. They must have massive budgets for the production of these goods, but when it comes to documentation, not so much. Is it that there is little budget for these vital pieces of information, or it is that the firms that sell them don’t understand the importance of good, clearly written manuals and guides? I’m not willing to speculate which it is. Instead, it’s instructive to compare this problem to those firms that do provide well written documentation.

Apple is a fine example of this. (While it’s true that product documentation has gotten smaller and smaller over the years as gadgets have become generally easier to use, there’s still a wide gulf between those who do it well and those who don’t.) First, Apple’s packaging is dead simple. There’s a picture of the device on the top of the smooth white or black box. On one or more sides of the box, the name of the device appears. A sticker on the bottom of the box details the basic device specifications. For example, if it’s a laptop computer, the screen size, processor speed, amount of RAM and disk size are listed – and that’s all. No complex descriptions that few users understand, no images cluttering the box. Open up the box and right on top is a hard paper sleeve that contains all the product documentation. As you flip through the slim user guide, each page has a simple picture with descriptive text written in plain English.

Let’s look at another example of well documented products: Bang & Olufsen. Like Apple, it’s cleanly designed and written in such as way as to be useful to the consumer, not stress inducing like most other electronics documentation.

What do these two companies do that evade so many others? It seems so simple and yet requires a lot of forethought: the documentation is part of the entire process of bringing the products to market. They’re not an afterthought or a throw-away. My educated guess is companies like Apple and Bang & Olufsen include their writers in all their projects, and further, they use actual writers, not overworked engineers who neither know nor care about the quality of the words used to speak to customers.

If it’s true that the story a company tells its customers speaks volumes, what must it say about the companies that don’t take the time to get the story right? For me, it’s the difference between companies that make great products that delight their customers and companies that ‘sell stuff.’

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