The ‘flat-pack test’ for guidance

8056899942_7066c4cc74_bOne of the dubious privileges of my suburban upbringing was watching my Dad assemble flat pack furniture on rainy Sunday afternoons.

As the hours passed and the chair, barbecue or desk started to emerge with missing legs or extra arms, I'd hear him mutter things like:

‘But which screw?'

‘Clockwise or counter clockwise?’

These jobs took him hours longer than they should have. He’d fold, unfold and refold the instructions many times. And he’d often end up having to start again.

When I write guidance, I try to think of my Dad and write in a way that would stop him from swearing, and allow him to get a task done as quickly as possible.

So what would feature in a flat pack test for writing guidance?

1) Avoid subjective terms

When we’re given existing guidance to rewrite, it often includes phrases that are subjective - they require users to make a judgement.

For example a guide might say:

  • "You must take appropriate measures to prevent pollution"
  • "You must not release sewage into sensitive receptors"

When I read these, I immediately think:

  • "What measures are appropriate?"
  • "Which receptors are sensitive?"

If we leave it up to users to make these judgements, it creates uncertainty for them. They don’t know what they need to do, and they get frustrated - like my Dad assembling furniture.

It also creates problems for us in government - because users might not end up doing what we need them to do.

So read back anything you write, and ask yourself:

Would I be able to do what’s being asked without having to use my own judgement?

2) Use examples

Sometimes it’s not possible to remove human judgement altogether. The list of appropriate pollution measures or sensitive receptors might be endless or change radically depending on the situation.

In that case think of your average user, and give an example of what you’d expect them to do:

You must take appropriate measures to prevent pollution, for example you must not wash undiluted fertiliser directly into drains.

This does 2 things. By dealing with the most common case, you can provide a solution for the average user. For other users you’re providing a clue about how to think about appropriate measures.

3) Provide an end point

In certain cases some users might have needs that are so complex or unique that even an example might not help much. If you think that’s likely in your situation, tell users how to get in touch with the department or agency, for advice about how to deal with their situation.

You could add a line like:

If you’re still not sure what measures you should be taking to prevent pollution, contact the Environment Agency to discuss your situation.

This at least provides users with an end point. It doesn’t leave them hanging with a set of instructions which they can’t follow.

4) Keep it simple

Last of all - keep it brief. The best furniture assembly instructions are short and sweet. They pack in the information that’s required, but they leave out anything that isn’t.

Ajay Makan is a content designer. You can follow him on twitter @ajaynou

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