Zen and the art of writing instructions

bikeI’m off on a road trip round the States in June. In preparation I’ve been re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the first time since I’ve started doing a lot of ‘technical copywriting’.

That introduction suggests several questions which I’ll answer straight away:

  1. I’m not crossing America on a Harley or any other type of bike
  2. Zen… is about a technical copywriter on a bike trip. Along the way he tries to rid himself of Phaedrus (the ego of his former mentally-ill self) and pontificates generally on the relationship between technology and beauty
  3. Technical copywriting involves writing all the formal stuff that isn’t glamorous but is important to get right e.g. instructions, user manuals, legal babble etc. etc. Stuff like this.

I’ve obviously got more of an interest in technical writing than I had when I read the book the first time so I’ve been keen to hear what Zen has to say. One bit has particularly struck me so far. The book’s narrator remarks that some bike owners – such as himself – take pride in maintaining their bike and become actively involved in learning how it works. Others – such as his friend John – refuse to take any interest at all and instead pay a mechanic to do a half-arsed job. He says the second group have a ‘spectator attitude.’

“Writing and editing technical manuals is what I do for a living … I knew they were full of errors, ambiguities, omissions and information so screwed up you had to read them six times to make any sense out of them.

“But what struck me for the first time was their [the manuals’] agreement with the spectator attitude I had seen in the shop. These were spectator manuals … Implicit in every line is the idea that ‘Here is the machine, isolated in space and time. It has no relationship to you, you have no relationship to it.’”

I’m not sure quite how much attention I should pay to this. People who build a relationship with their technology are all over the internet – google ‘Apple help forum’ and you’ll see what I mean. But there also needs to be a place for a (probably larger) group who don’t want anything to do with their circuit board.

Zen’s narrator seems to think that though technical writing should cater for these ‘spectators’ it should also be able to impart an understanding along the way. So instead of just writing “Select Organizer” you might write: “Select Organizer. This is where you can change your phone’s calendar and alarms.”

Whether this is what people want when they’re wading through a 35-step guide to setting up a video call is debatable. Though it may be more Zen-like to understand exactly how our machines work, many non-technophobes have neither the time nor inclination to spend hours getting close and personal with their mobile phone.

But as machines get increasingly technical this basic level of understanding may become vital in saving the user time. After all, computer experts rarely follow a process from start to finish but instead jump straight in at the important bit. If users don’t have the understanding to jump in then they may soon lose the ability to use technology effectively.

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I guess I’ll have plenty of time to think about it on the inter-states of the USA.

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