News & Views

Firex 2019 – challenging the status quo

The annual Firex show at London’s ExCeL convention centre last week was an excellent chance to obtain an overview of the current state of the fire protection industry, one of the sectors in which Tyndale has been working for a number of years. The big players in the industry were well-represented but it was the smaller booths that most attracted the attention of Tyndale’s director, Robert Pallant.

One theme that quickly emerged from talking to exhibitors was that the shockwaves caused by the Grenfell disaster two years ago are still reverberating around the industry, and this is likely to continue for some time yet, especially as the government’s response to the tragedy is not yet fully formed. However, some changes have been implemented, such as much more stringent (and costly) testing of fire doors, which has caused many smaller manufacturers to struggle or even go out of business. It has also focussed attention on the intumescent layers in the doors – the strips of plastic that are fitted around the rim of the door and expand to seal the air gaps when the door is heated by a fire. There are firms available with technical expertise in these materials that can help door manufacturers design a material that conforms to their precise specifications and ensure that they can pass the more rigorous performance tests.

Another area that is seeing growth is the use of fire curtains. Long used in theatres to protect the auditorium from fires backstage, they are now increasingly being installed in open plan homes and offices, and even larger spaces such as warehouses. They introduce compartmentation in the event of a fire to prevent the rapid spread of smoke through the building and allow time for people to escape. They can be hidden discreetly when not in use but will deploy simply and quickly, even in the event of a power failure, and can withstand fire temperatures for 2-4 hours.

While progress has been made in the design of public buildings to allow access by those with restricted mobility, such as wheelchair users, some exhibitors felt that there isn’t enough attention being paid to getting these people out again quickly if a fire breaks out. This is also an issue for the increasing number of residents and patients in care homes and hospitals. There were a number of manufacturers of evacuation devices at the exhibition, including chairs fitted with skids that allow a single person to safely lower another down a flight of stairs.

Finally, even the venerable water sprinkler industry is arguing for a change in attitudes and culture in how we view their use. Life safety has rightly been the overriding priority for fire safety systems, but an industry association is suggesting that it is not sensible to design systems that allow occupants to escape from a block of flats, school, warehouse or factory, who can then only watch as it is destroyed by fire. Many fire services can evacuate and rescue people but do not have the capacity to rapidly control large fires and salvage property. Making the inclusion of water sprinklers mandatory in such buildings would, they argue, help prevent the total loss of facilities and infrastructure and greatly shorten the recovery time for organisations – surely a significant benefit to the nation which would justify any increased costs in the initial building construction?

With incidents such as Notre Dame in Paris and, very recently, the loss of a number of new flats in Barking, West London, reminding us that our centuries-long struggle to combat unwanted fires continues, it is encouraging to know that there are efforts in progress to challenge conventional thinking and change the culture of how we fight this battle. What seems to still be needed is clear leadership and coordination to drive these efforts forward.



Why product experts don’t write good manuals

When considering the writing of product manuals, one question that often comes up is, why don’t the people who designed and built the equipment write the manuals themselves? At first glance, it seems like a sensible suggestion – they will know the product and its many features inside and out, and may also understand how they can be used to meet a specific need or serve a particular application. Surely there’s no-one better to write the user’s guide?

Too much or too little?

In fact, there are a number of potential issues with this solution. In most cases, the product specialist is a fundamentally different person from the end user of the equipment. They (the specialist) understand every nuance of the product and have lived with it on a daily basis for many months or even years. They are likely to have forgotten a time when they didn’t have a deep understanding of the underlying technology, and so the tendency will be for them to assume too much knowledge on the part of the user. They will also lapse naturally into the jargon of the subject, as this is part of their everyday language.

Users, on the other hand, are often not specialists in the field at all, and frequently don’t need to be; they use the equipment as a tool to help them perform one part of their job function. They will thoroughly understand the application of the product, but won’t necessarily need to know every aspect of how it meets their requirements.

Whilst one instinct of the experts is to assume too much knowledge, another is (paradoxically) to impart too much information about the product. Those who are responsible for creating a new product will be understandably proud of it, and are quite likely to describe every nuance of every feature, mode and option, rather than focussing on those that the user will find the most valuable. The expert’s familiarity with the product makes it hard for them to imagine how a new user would approach performing tasks, and so while the expert might routinely use a shortcut, a new user might find this counter-intuitive and would be better advised to follow a more methodical approach until they are familiar with the product.

Play to your strengths

Finally, there is perhaps the most fundamental problem: most developers work in their discipline precisely because they enjoy developing new products. Writing about a product they have spent ages developing isn’t necessarily their favourite task! It can take longer than expected to complete a manual, mainly because the product also needs to be fully completed, which often doesn’t actually happen until it enters production (if then!). By this time, the specialist will be deep into the next development cycle, or working on a completely new product, and won’t welcome the distraction of trying to complete the writing of the guide for a product they regard as finished.

Engineers are adept in grasping technical concepts and are strong in science, mathematics and logic. They can prepare highly technical specifications that describe the product in detail to other specialists. However, these skills do not necessarily prepare them for the task of writing for non-specialists. This is where a technical author can offer real value to a business.

Technical authors bring the approach of engineering to the task of writing, by building up documents in stages to create a finished product that is fit for purpose and specifically designed for its readership. They learn about the product; they ask questions of the experts (an essential source of information); they break the information down into logical steps (for procedures) or succinct chunks (for general descriptions). And they do this with the big advantage that they are not experts in the product, which allows them to place themselves in the shoes of the user much more easily and tailor the content and presentation to suit them.

So while it might seem that a product specialist would be best placed to write a manual, in practice this is often not likely to produce the best manual for the user. Better to ask a writing specialist – a technical author!

© 2019 Tyndale Technical Authoring Ltd

Manuals – why their day isn’t yet done

Most technical authors cut their teeth by writing or at least maintaining either a user’s guide or some other form of manual. Even software-based technical authors who write Help content are essentially writing a manual for using the software application. For decades they were the preferred, perhaps even the only, form of technical communication that was available to explain a product to a new user. However, we in the technical communications industry are constantly hearing about the need to move beyond manuals and embrace new ways of communicating content. Many consumer products no longer come with a comprehensive manual; a basic start-up guide then allows users to access online content to help them answer questions. Although this trend is significant and important, it’s been our experience that the traditional manual still has a lot of things going for it.

Firstly, as we’ve discussed in a separate article, manuals are usually a regulatory requirement. However, it would be doing a disservice to manuals to use this alone as justification for their continued existence. Manuals are a very useful source of reference material for a product. Settings and their meanings are often most easily understood by consulting a list in a manual. Terminology is easily explained in a glossary; symbols and their meanings can be quickly found in a table; connections between components are simple to follow in a clear, well-designed diagram.

In technical communication, one size doesn’t fit all; each method of conveying content has its pros and cons. Innovations like online video and augmented reality are complemented by a manual when it comes to complex products with multiple operating modes. It’s often true that a well-made online video is a more effective learning tool for a complicated physical operation than a series of pictures and words in a step-by-step procedure. However, it rapidly becomes somewhat tedious to sit through it again and again to find that one step you can’t remember; easier to flip to the page in the manual showing the appropriate step and have it next to you while you work through the operation. While the video in this case is the initial teaching aid, the manual reminds the user of what they have already learnt the next time they need to perform the same procedure.

This highlights another point that may cause innovators to hold their heads in despair. Many companies save money these days by only producing soft copies of their manuals, usually as PDFs. This is not really the best format to view and navigate easily on a screen, and the tech comms industry has woken up to this by creating HTML-based formats that are much more suitable for tablets and smartphones. Of course, electronic manuals can be downloaded to your mobile device in advance of a service visit, as many plant rooms still seem to be in black spots for going online, and the documents are certainly easier to carry around this way. However, you still need battery power to read them, and somewhere to balance your expensive piece of electronics while you use both hands to work on the product. A printed manual doesn’t need wi-fi, mobile phone signal, or even electricity to read (beyond a light source). It’s simple to add your own notes or comments, making the manual a living document that is customisable to suit its owner, as well as assisting with providing feedback to improve future revisions. And it seems that we humans still have an affinity for paper when it comes to long-ish documents; after all, the demise of the printed book was predicted in the face of tablets and e-readers, and yet their sales remain strong.

So don’t be too quick to dismiss the manual as yesterday’s solution to communicating technical content. It’s easy to be distracted and diverted by the innovations that the burgeoning world of digital technology can offer; many of these certainly offer some intriguing possibilities to help enrich a user’s experience of a product, but neither are they the answers to all our needs. Manuals still provide a strong and stable foundation upon which all other user assistance can be built.

© 2018 Tyndale Technical Authoring Ltd

What makes a good manual?

Technical authors are often confronted with the spectre of the user’s manual when we mention what we do for a living. It is invariably the most universal example that we can give to shine a light on the largely hidden world of technical authoring, although it usually leads to someone recounting a story about instructions that completely failed to convey how to build or operate something, to which we can only shrug and mumble something about how companies should use professional technical authors to create such documents…

The fact is that it isn’t easy to write a good manual. One reason for this is that they are a regulatory requirement. The submission of a manual is a mandatory part of all the product compliance submissions with which we’ve ever been involved, and so it isn’t surprising that many clients request a manual as one of the first things that they need from a technical author. Products must be accompanied by some information which purports to help the end user to safely handle and operate the item. It must describe who produced it and what the potential hazards and risks are in using it. It must also attempt to anticipate the consequences of any misuse of the product and provide warnings and advice on how to avoid them. And therein lies part of the problem.

Manuals have often become repositories for every fragment of information needed to ensure compliance and limit a company’s liability, causing them to become bloated and difficult to navigate. If a company can say “it’s in the manual” then they at least feel that they are legally in the clear, even if this makes the manual so unwieldy and tedious to read that no-one bothers, thereby negating the benefits of all this valuable corporate wisdom. However, with the current popularity of seeking compensation, it seems unlikely that companies will strip out all this legalese from their manuals any time soon.

This trend certainly increases the need for manuals to be well-planned, carefully structured and clearly written to maximise their usefulness. Words should be used as economically as possible to convey the message clearly. Terminology must be unambiguous and consistent. Clear diagrams and photographs can be of great help although, flat-pack furniture assembly instructions notwithstanding, they are rarely sufficient on their own.

Careful consideration must be given as to what to include and, equally importantly, what to leave out. Where there are multiple ways of performing the same operation, something for which software is particularly notorious, there are often strong arguments against describing them all as it becomes too confusing, especially for a basic level new user. It can also be argued that most users do not need to understand exactly how a product works. While a superficial appreciation of what is happening can be helpful in using the product sensibly and diagnosing simple faults, an in-depth description, if needed at all, should be included as an appendix and not allowed to complicate or obscure the essential information.

Targeted manuals can offer a good solution against the tendency to include too much information. A quick start-up guide that covers the basics can be invaluable to getting a product up and running quickly. More advanced manuals for more adept users can follow later. Alternatively, looking from the manufacturer’s viewpoint, comprehensive service manuals can act as useful stores of product knowledge, containing valuable hints and tips gleaned as the product matures. These too need careful structuring and indexing if information is to be easily found, although the advent of electronic manuals now helps with this by providing a search facility. These documents can also act as valuable fault-finding guides for both users and technical support staff, and with email and the cloud allowing manuals to be rapidly sent around the world, the onus on the user not losing their one copy of the manual has reduced considerably.

Another important aspect of manuals which is easy to overlook is their role in supporting the company’s brand. The documentation that a user receives to help them understand and use a product says a lot about the company that supplied it. Not only should the manual adopt the same visual appearance as other marketing material, it should also feature the same style and ‘tone of voice’, so that it acts to support the rest of the company literature and reinforces the brand’s values.

The mandatory requirement for manuals, which can make them seem like a burden for companies to produce, can hide the great potential benefits that they can bring for both the manufacturer and the user – when they are well-written, of course!

© 2018 Tyndale Technical Authoring Ltd