With great publishing products available, why is today’s technical documentation so poor?

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Martyn Day’s ‘rant du jour’ came about when had to make his own bed. We are not talking sheets, pillow cases and duvet covers here but self-assembly furniture. Here he documents his frustrations
I always knew I was a heavy sleeper. However, I didn’t realise quite how heavy. Last Sunday at 4am my bed gave in to gravity, suffering a catastrophic failure.

On inspection, my final and most ludicrous bodge fix (9-inch zinc plated masonry nails), had caused the wood to split, leading to things going bump in the night. Deeming the structure dangerously unsound and beyond repair, I headed off to the ‘British’ interior design specialists, Ikea, for a post-modern replacement.

Unfortunately the bed I bought came in two flatpacks, both longer than my car, so I had to open the boxes and stack the wood across the back seats. Apart from being heavy, there were over 50 individual pieces, two big bags of screws and a manual. It seems I had myself a bit of a project.

Eventually all the pieces were in the bedroom, I had a coffee in one hand and a flat headed screwdriver with an inappropriately short shaft in the other. The pictorial instructions indicated I needed a Phillips head screwdriver and a minimum of two people to assemble. Unsuitably equipped I figured I was all set to go.

Deeming the bed structurally unsound and beyond repair, I headed off to the ‘British’ interior design specialists, Ikea, for a post-modern replacement

Six hours later, I had very sore hands, a bag of de-threaded screws, a twisted and broken tipped screwdriver and still only three quarters of a bed.

Of course, the source of all my ills were those damned comic book instructions which were truly diabolical. As the international language of self-assembly product is obviously ‘cartoon’, identification of all the components means visually comparing what’s in the box vs what’s drawn.

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But when 80% of the components look the same length and are only differentiated by how many tiny holes they have, or the patterns the holes are in, I couldn’t help but feel that this is what it must be like to read Braille.

Tech writes and wrongs

In my day job I am spoiled. I get to play with all these wonderful 3D design systems, see the latest technology and understand the potential benefits of the downstream reuse of this modelling work. However, I can’t actually remember buying a product that has used these 3D animation or contemporary documentation tools that have been around for years.

It seems the state of the art in technical documentation ended with Adobe FrameMaker, around the same time the Osmonds had their last number one.

Using 3D models in digital documentation seems like a no-brainer to me but today, at best, the digital manual is a PDF of the paper one that you lost / threw away / burnt in anger. Diagrams are isometric.

Why is today’s technical documentation so poor, given the effort we put into virtually building these products in the first place?

There is no shortage of 3D publishing formats. Over the last four years we have seen all out war on what will be the most popular collaboration format – DWF, 3DXML, U3D, XVL, JT, CSF… Every CAD vendor invented its own, which none of the others would promote or use.

And then of course there was Adobe, which, before garroting its own 3D PDF initiative by ‘letting go’ the entire team, had at least enabled some capability to import and display interactive 2D and 3D CAD models in PDF.

I’ve yet to get documentation with one of those in it either.

There are some great documentation and publishing products out there now: Inventor Publisher, PTC Arbortext, Dassault Systèmes’ 3DVia Composer, SolidWorks eDrawings, NX MasterDrafting, CADfaster, Actify Spinfire, Oracle AutoVue…. the list goes on and on.

Author!

I’m starting to think that the reason we don’t see much reuse of CAD data in consumer documentation is that there are cultural problems in exposing this data with the technical authors.

With the additional problem that if the document department has a paper-based, static mindset and workflow, then 2D output is all they think they need and is ultimately self-limiting?

In fact if a paper-based manual is the target product then a 3D equivalent would be just a lot more work, while a PDF of the 2D document is literally a byproduct of the existing process.

Obviously, it’s too early to only have digital, dynamic 3D instructions available via the web. As then only the Internet-rich would be able to assemble Ikea furniture but I can’t but help feel that our industry fails to invest in the documentation phase of the process and many see it as an afterthought. In tough economic times, it can be this department that thins out the quickest.

Conclusion

Manuals, assembly instructions and product documentation should be a celebration of the engineering knowledge and effort that has gone into designing products and the first source of help customers should resort to. Well-designed documentation saves money in lower support calls and in field maintenance and captures employee knowledge.

My bed is now fully assembled and I am, in fact, sat upon it writing this article. However I am not sure if I will sleep all-that well tonight. I’ve just discovered that there were ten big screws left over… and I’m told Ikea never gets that wrong.

If you have come across any slick product manuals/instructions that utilise 3D, please drop me a line so I can highlight these wonderful and rare documents!


Martyn Day grapples with a flatpack


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