When it comes to producing a quality product or piece of machinery, the way you present your instructions and methodology behind using them is one of the most important steps in the development and sales process. A quality user manual is hard to develop, as creating content that is both useful and engaging is a careful balancing act that manufacturers need to implement to be available and useable across all demographics and markets. The key to all of this – and the starting point for all effective manual creation – is knowing your role as the information authority, and making sure to involve the right stakeholders in the creation and testing process. To delve into the complex realm of manual creation and liability, we turned to Dr. Patricia Robinson, one of our consulting experts, and the author of Writing and Designing Manuals and Warnings (5th edition).
Using A Multi-disciplinary Approach
One of the biggest challenges in creating a manual for a piece of machinery is being able to write the content from a first time user perspective. This is because developers who are involved in every stage of a machine’s inception to production are too familiar with the product and may leave out areas of instruction that may not be as obvious to someone who has never seen the equipment before.
Involving a multi-disciplinary team into a manual’s writing and development process is best to make sure every approach is considered and that they’re consolidated into what will make the most sense for the end user. Experts in the subject should be consulted first to make sure everything is factually correct before testing.
How to Test Your Manual’s Effectiveness
Involving multiple work demographics is extremely important when it comes to testing, as anyone at your company who has already interacted with the equipment would not be an accurate representative of a new user trying to understand the manual. Testing the instructions on employees who are unfamiliar with the product may help you identify the most blatant problems. However, they too may not represent the target audience which is why testing on a representative audience is essential for meaningful results. Some tips for methods to include in the initial testing of your product manuals are as follows:
- Include critical subgroups of likely users, also including those who may not comprehend new electronics, varying age demographics, and those whose first language is not English.
- Make sure that you have the product on hand while testing the instructions, do not have users just read through the manual and tell you what they think. They should be carrying out the tasks described on the machine itself.
- When test users are using the product according to the manual for the first time, you should be measuring their behavior while doing so; make sure that they’re not getting too frustrated or are guessing what to do if there are missing steps.
- The environment where you’re carrying out manual tests is extremely important. All the noise, sound, smells, and surrounding activities should be consistent with the machine’s typical environment of use. This makes for a more accurate test and that that any distractions can be avoided while using the manual.
- Don’t be afraid to revise your instructions as many times as needed based on performance evaluations of test groups. Condensing or elaborating on certain instructions may improve comprehension to a critical degree.
Updating Your Manual
After your initial testing period and first round of publication and distribution, Dr. Robinson reminds manufactures that it’s a good idea to schedule periodic reviews of manuals and hazard analyses for machinery that address the conditions of use and identify any changes that may need to be addressed in the manual. Any significant changes in product designs or a new discovery of hazards not recognized at the time of sale are situations that require a manual update.
It’s important to note that changes in the user group are an extremely valid and necessary reason to reevaluate and send out updated manuals, even if it wasn’t a concern in the initial testing group. Machines that used to be operated almost exclusively by men may now have increasing numbers of female operators (who are typically smaller and may have a different experience base). As immigration increases, the workforce may lower in English proficiency. Younger operators may not be as familiar with mechanics and hand tools – but may be much more comfortable with electronics and digital information. And an aging workforce may bring with it slower reaction times, less-keen eyesight, and other physical changes.
A Multi-Market Approach:
When it comes to producing your manuals for an expansive market outside of the United States, you need to determine the best ways to communicate your information to multiple non English literate users. A few different options are available to you in terms of communicating your manuals in different languages, including but not limited to:
- Translate the full text of the instructions. Both languages can be included within a single document or you can create a separate document for each language. If both are placed in a single document, each language should be easily distinguishable from one another, either by font, size, or color. Using separate documents for each language is especially important when the instructions in any one language are more than four or five pages/sides long.
- Alternative language versions of the instructions can be made available upon request. These might be available on the Internet or by mail order. You should make a point to call to attention the availability of the instructions, in the appropriate language, within the English language version or accompanying materials for multi-cultural workplace distributions.
- You can provide safety warnings and crucial text in multiple languages, but the rest of the written instructions should be in English.
- Using diagrams and graphics to illustrate actions and relying less on text. Use graphics that show the tasks users must perform, but only if those graphics are well understood by your audience. If consumers have a difficult time understanding the graphic alone, you should supplement it with multilingual text. Keeping in mind that some tasks and concepts cannot be properly expressed using graphics in which case, written instructions may be the only effective option. (This method can also be used in your on product warnings by implementing ISO symbol only labels instead of text).
Safety and Design
At Clarion Safety, we’re committed to helping our customers reduce liability within their machines, and keeping workers safe. We understand that creating and maintaining quality user manuals can be a difficult and time consuming task, which is why our machinery safety services include manual audits and design services, as well as custom training options for both manufacturers and employers. Our team of liability professionals is able to pick up the legwork and create a comprehensive safety plan that bridges the gap between on-product safety labels and online learning manuals. Contact us today to learn more!