by Lynn Miller on April 17, 2009
For me, travel requires coffee.
So I was happy to see a coffee maker in my hotel room while I was at CHI – particularly since CHI starts at 8:15am. Being an upscale hotel, my room had an upscale coffee maker laid out nicely on a tray.
There was an instruction card propped up in the coffee maker. My guess is that the instruction card was created after the 500th call to the front desk to say that the coffee packs were twice the size of the basket they are supposed to go into and the cheerful front desk staff were getting less cheerful when telling the guests they should stuff it. (The coffee pack into the basket, that is.)
This got me thinking about the design of documentation. Can you spot the missing step in the (unfortunately slightly fuzzy) instructions below?
Do you think that, even in the early morning, there are people who end up slurping coffee off the table top because the instructions didn’t say to put a cup in to catch the coffee? I rather doubt it.
I like the concept of not treating the readers of documentation like idiots. This little card gave me the information that I needed and couldn’t know ahead of time (how much water to use, the filter looks too big but is the right size, only push the button once) without wasting my time by giving me information that I either already knew or could easily guess (I can get water from the sink, I need to use a cup).
Can we use this concept in software documentation? What parts can safely be left out so that we are only highlighting the pieces that are really needed? This is different than trying to reduce word count by using simple writing concepts (which I am a big fan of).
Back in the 1980’s, software documentation had to include instructions on how to use a mouse. This was dropped when mouse usage became part of the general knowledge people were expected to have -- just like catching the coffee with a cup is. Are there concepts in our documentation that are just as obsolete, but we’re keeping them to be complete? How do we root these out?
Something to ponder.