Guidelines for Developing Instructions

Guidelines for Developing Instructions

Guidelines for Developing Instructions

Guidelines for Developing Instructions


Confusing, inadequate instructions for setting up and using consumer products are not only unhelpful, but potentially dangerous. They may contain wrong information, poor warnings, and no pictures or illustrations. Standards are either non-existent or little known, even though the U.S. government has developed and tested standards for the past thirty years. This book presents a set of guidelines written by The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society that have been tested by human factor specialists. This expert advice is applicable to writing assembly procedures, operational procedures, and user, shop, and repair manuals.


In a sense, this book has been evolving for over 30 years. the journey started in the early 1970s when we had a contract to help the Air Force reduce the cost of its technical manuals. We discovered at that time that the real cost was not the cost of the manuals but the cost of not providing information usable on the job and the effect of this lack of information on performance on the job. the technical manuals in the field were mostly bulky reference manuals filled with difficult-to-understand technical data.

The lack of useful information usable on the job meant that the people performing such jobs had to generate the information on the spot, which, in turn, required technicians with considerable experience and knowledge base. Furthermore, there were not enough of these well-trained experienced technicians to keep the systems running well enough to meet operational requirements. Thus, the major cost to the Air Force (and all the other services as well) was not the cost of the technicians and the manuals but rather the cost of maintaining these systems without proper help for the technicians.

What we discovered was that given the proper information in a readily usable manner, technicians with lesser skills and with limited experience could perform the simpler jobs better than the experienced technicians, and then could help maintain these complex systems at a higher level of availability with lower cost. Applying this capability would free the experienced technicians to focus on tasks requiring their skills and experience, that is, troubleshooting, and complex checkout and alignment tasks. This discovery supported what pioneers of the human factors community had contended since the late 1950s. However, the study results were received with considerable skepticism by most people in management because it went against the common practice of relying on experienced technicians using conventional manuals. We learned a valuable lesson that study results, regardless of how convincing they seem to the researchers, are not enough to change common practices.

There is an entire industry of people and companies producing bulky, hard-to-use manuals at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. a few good field studies are not enough to change that industry. Still, over the next 3 decades, the skepticism and barriers to change gradually gave way as study after study reached the same conclusion.

Some of the early pioneers such as Bob Smillie (one of my co-authors) continued to fight the battle with a variety of studies that helped chip away at the skepticism. They eventually caused the military to accept these new forms of instructions (also known as job performance aids, or β€œnew” manuals) as requirements for all new systems.

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