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Giving Clear Instructions?

A few months back I went with my kids of one of those Saturday morning build a toy workshops at a big-box hardware store. My kids love the ability to build something; and I love to see them successful with a project in just 15 minutes. What’s not to love?

What’s Not to Love?

One word can make or break instructions

One word can make or break instructions

This particular day, there was one thing not to love. The instructions. The wonderful, bi-lingual, iconographic instructions had a flaw. Well, an ambiguity really. In step 5 the instructions specified to be sure the cut-out notch faced down. Unfortunately the picture showed the project turned on its top. So, which way did they mean by down? Did they mean down while assembling or down when completed? It didn’t say. So, like all the other parents, I took a guess hoping that my 50:50 odds would play out.

50:50 Is Not Good Odds

Unfortunately, my guess – like so many other parents’ – was not right. As I looked around I saw a number of parents and children trying to figure out how to remove the bottom plate from their cars to make them work. It turns out that 50:50 odds aren’t a good game to play.

So, what went wrong? I think that it’s pretty clear that the ambiguity of which end was down tripped up a lot of people. In the months since, I’ve realized that a small change in the wording of the instructions could have avoided the problem. Changing “Be sure notch faces down” to “Be sure notch faces car” would have solved the issue. One word. Just one word different could have made a world of difference.

Lessons Learned?

I kept the instruction sheet to that project. I didn’t do it to prove that someone at a big company was an idiot. I still don’t believe that is or was the case. I saved the instruction sheet as a reminder to me to be sure that my instructions are clear.

Far too often I’ve shared something with others that left them scratching their heads just looking befuddled, even though what I said was perfectly clear to me.

I see the curse of knowledge at work here. I know everything that I want conveyed. Because I know that, I unconsciously assume that everyone else shares that knowledge. After all, if I know it, then there’s no reason to assume that anyone else wouldn’t, right? What I have learned – and the lesson that I see to be gleaned from this experience – is to be sure that my assumptions are clear. Or, as my ninth grade geometry teacher taught me, first define our terms. If we define our terms clearly, then there won’t be any disagreement left. Being sure that things are clearly defined and shared will ensure that the instructions are clear both to me and to the person I’m instructing.

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