by Viv Cole on August 10, 2009

It’s well known amongst trainers just how hard it is to issue clear instructions that people can follow. Over the years on Train the Trainer courses, I have witnessed hundreds of course delegates learn from failing to be able to give adequate instructions for a novice to make a jam sandwich or wrap a pad of Post-Its in paper. So I’d like to think I have a handle on what makes for good instructions. Sadly it seems that this week’s sample of UK plc shows that poorly thought out instructions are rife, as my experiences of building a cot and a sandpit will testify.

The cot has only 5 pieces of wood and 8 screws, so it would make a fine “dad test” to assemble it without instructions. If you were incapable of doing so, you’d have your “dad licence” revoked. As we live under a less eugenic political regime, and I’m curious like that, I thought I’d follow the instructions. The highlight for me was Step 5 where you were asked to turn one piece of wood upside down so that you could put 4 barrel nuts in, and then turn it back upright. Predictably, all this would achieve is leaving you with 4 barrel nuts scattered across the floor. If the writer of the instructions had had anyone try out the instructions, they would have realised the need for an extra step of guidance like when to turn the cot upside down and when to right it.

A similar lack of user testing was evident on the sandpit project. The instructions showed that the sandpit liner should have been drilled with 12 holes for screws to pass through…alas no holes to be seen. Hence the dilemma of make some holes and risk trashing the liner, or build the damn thing anyway and see that the liner cannot do its job properly. If only someone had been bothered to check…or even stick amended instructions on the company’s website…

The moral of the story for us in L&D – get more user feedback before something is published to thousands. Or is it that instruction writers have reached the point that so few people actually read the instructions that they may as well not bother writing them correctly?

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