Podcast 145: How large organisations create useful, informative, accessible content

This month’s podcast looks at how large organisations create useful, informative content which is accessible to a wide, often global, audience.

As part of the research for this podcast Ginny looked at various websites which are mentioned in the podcast. Many thanks to those organisations and their expertise. Here are the links to the ones mentioned in the podcast:


Hello and welcome to the Cherryleaf podcast coming to you this month from sunny Brighton and presented by me Ginny Critcher. I’m a technical writer and am one of the co-founders. Cherryleaf.

This month the smell of home baked bread has been scenting my home as we have been enjoying our new bread-maker and learning it’s quirks and peculiarities. I did read the manual that came with the bread maker – prompted as much by professional curiosity as by wanting to know how it worked – and that is what has inspired this month’s podcast on how large organisations create useful, informative content which is accessible to a wide audience.

Let’s have a look at my bread-maker’s instruction manual. The bread-maker I have is a Panasonic SD – YR2540 (there are hundreds of bread-makers so I’m being quite specific about the model and its corresponding manual. It’s that model’s manual that I’m going to talk about.

Once the bread-maker arrived I was eager to get busy baking, but I hadn’t used a bread-maker before so I glanced through the manual. My partner on the other hand just got stuck in, but I’m a tech writer so, of course, I had to read the manual. What struck me initially about the 31-page manual that came with it was the large amount of information it contained. In addition to the usual health and safety warnings there is a section on the various components of the bread maker, its accessories and how to use them. There is a section detailing the ingredients required for the various recipes, there are menu charts and handling instructions, cleaning and care, plus troubleshooting. And yes there are the recipes. 30 recipes detailed in just 6 of the 31 pages. Which I thought was pretty good.

So how did they cram all these recipes into just 6 pages? They did so by using a table format which details the ingredients and the quantity using a mixture of numbers, icons and words. This table has to convey quite a lot of information including – the exact quantity of ingredients, size of loaf, crust colour, timing and any extra manual operation that may be required.

There is an example at the beginning explaining what the icons mean. Numbered asterisks within the recipes point to extra information that some recipes require.

The pages preceding the recipes give more detailed instructions which I found helpful for the first few recipes that I tried.

Essentially the recipes are pretty straightforward for basic bread and consist of assemble ingredients, select your recipe on the bread maker and press go. As with anything new it took us a few tries to get the bread just as we like it and once we understood the way the recipes were shown it was much easier.

The audience for this information is very large. Potentially anyone can buy a bread-maker so the user manual has to be aimed at a global audience which can be challenging. With a global audience you’ve got to convey information to a widely differing group of people. That said I feel that this manual works really well – the tables with icons are clear, contain all the information you need plus there is extra detail should you need it. And of course for the manufacturer the more icons, symbols and pictures used in any manual means lower translation costs.

The only issue I had was with the bread size options which are medium, large , extra-large – these are displayed as M, L and XL and shown on top of the table columns outside the table, both my partner and I missed this crucial piece of information. I wonder if we missed this because not every recipe displayed this information and/or because the sizing I am used to would generally be small, medium, large or S, M, L rather than as here M L and XL. It’s a small error on our part but as the default option is XL some of our initial bread loaves weren’t great as we hadn’t realised that we needed to change the size of the loaf option. It’s been a timely reminder that good documentation caters for all types of user from novice to expert.

Other than the issue with the sizing I wouldn’t change the way the information is presented – I think the manufacturer created an excellent manual: the processes were clearly explained, numbered steps were used and the steps weren’t overly complicated. The English was good and the only hint that it may have been a translation was the very occasional incorrect use of the definite article. And I had to look quite hard for this I don’t think your regular bread-maker would be overly troubled by this.

It’s encouraging to see that so many user guides, policies and procedures etc are now written to a much higher standard than years ago. I have been professionally involved in the technical writing world in some form or another for 30 years and I have seen a lot of changes in that time, not least how much more widespread clear plain English has become. Gone are the days of impenetrable government forms using stilted, formal complicated sentence structure, making documents sound quite pompous and difficult to understand. So the next organisation I’m taking a look at is the gov.uk site. This is a good place see examples of well written technical writing that has to cater for a very large audience. There is a wealth of information on the site that is useful for technical authors especially if you are just starting out in your writing career.

Government Digital Services is the department responsible for the gov.uk site and their stated aim is to “ to make digital government simpler, clearer and faster for everyone”. And when they say everyone they do mean it as their audience is any one accessing government services in the UK.

13 years ago things were a little less streamlined. Each government department had their own website, with their own look and style, giving a somewhat messy, incoherent feel. As a response to this the Government Digital Service (or GDS) was formed in 2011 to implement the “Digital by Default” strategy which was proposed by a report produced for the Cabinet Office called ‘Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution.

GDS helps teams that work on government services by providing:

The GDS Service Toolkit which gives a lot of information to teams creating public services helping these teams to meet service standards.

Their accessibility strategy outlines their principles and how they work to improve accessibility within the GOV.UK Design System.

GDS’s stated government design principles starts by placing the user first and foremost – as they put it:

Service design starts with identifying user needs. If you don’t know what the user needs are, you won’t build the right thing. Do research, analyse data, talk to users. Don’t make assumptions. Have empathy for users and remember that what they ask for isn’t always what they need.

The design principles continue with accessibility, understanding the context in which a user is accessing their services, and making potentially complex systems simpler to use.

The style guide is comprehensive and well thought out explaining to content creators among other things which words to capitalize or not, plain English expressions to use such as turn off rather than – disable, mute or silence. And so on.

There is a section on designing your service where there is information on how to make government services content look like the gov.uk site with guides for applying layout, colour, images and so on.

The Service manual has a lot of information aimed at helping teams to create and run good public services – there’s a wealth of information here including how to work in an agile way. There’s section on user research which explains how to understand your users and how to conduct user research, and also information on how to measure success. I really like the way the information is set out in clear understandable chunks of text. I find it easy to navigate and find information.

Government Digital Services is an organisation that puts the user needs front and foremost and this is very noticeable both in the wealth of information that is available on their site and actually using their services.

Recent government services I have had to use include applying for copies of birth certificates, taxing my car and getting certain documents legally authenticated. All 3 services were easily findable, usable and accessible. The information about each service was comprehensive and easy to understand, it’s clear that GDS has had a very positive effect on these online government services.

The GDS site is an informative accessible resource and I often reference it on training courses to show examples of good clear writing.

Moving away from government now and back to the corporate world, let’s take a look at some other types of instruction manual. This next one relies on graphics rather than words to give its audience information. Loved and hated in equal measure the world over it’s the Ikea assembly instructions manuals. They are an example of technical manuals that have a huge global audience. Anyone, which I’m guessing is a fair percentage of us, who has experienced the joy of assembling an Ikea product will have thoughts on Ikea’s assembly instructions.

The Ikea world of flat pack furniture came about in the 1950s when Gilles Lundren, IKEA employee designed, built and attempted to get a table into his car – the table wouldn’t fit in the car so he took the legs off put the legs and table-top in a box and flat pack furniture was gifted to the world. Having created flat pack furniture Ikea then had to come up with something that would clearly explain how to put their products together to their global audience. Their solution was to come up with a manual of instructions made up of graphics, diagrams and symbols.

And it is pretty impressive that a product such as Ikea’s Billy bookcase can be assembled by following just 14 steps. According to Ikea’s website “It is estimated that every five seconds, one BILLY bookcase is sold somewhere in the world”. That’s a lot of people using that instruction manual so they have to get it right. And in fact many years of fine tuning have led to these streamlined instructions – starting with the manual creators putting the product together themselves according to Jan Fredlund a designer who has worked on those Ikea instruction booklets. In a Fast company blog post John Pavlus explores some of the concepts behind these Ikea assembly instructions, clarity and continuity being key areas.

And although I work mostly with words I do sometimes use graphics to convey complicated instructions – and I do think in some situations a picture really does paint a thousand words.

I believe that we as technical authors understand that whatever medium you use to present your content it can be a challenge to convey complex information to a wide audience in terms that the audience can understand. My takeaway from looking at how these three large organisations successfully do so has shown that they rely on some of the underlying principles of technical writing: precision, clarity and usability and that a lot of thought and effort goes into making their information so accessible to all of us. If you’ve come across any examples of great user manuals I’d love to hear your thoughts on what makes a good manual and why. Thank you for listening to me, Ginny Critcher, on the Cherryleaf podcast.

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