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Fred's Views


Those #$%&(*&%# Directions!

As a teacher and a parent, I have been writing and following directions for most of my life. I should know a thing or two about them. I also know that we human beings have a lot of differences between us that are far more significant than any superficial differences of skin color or race. Differences more profound than culture or religion. We human beings learn in different ways. Some prefer to hear a lecture and make notes. Some prefer hands on. Others would learn best by being tutored one on one. Still others, like me, would rather read about something and then go off by themselves to try it out. Some people relate best to words (text), others to sound (spoken word) and still others to more graphical stimuli (diagrams, etc.) We are all different. Today, more and more people learn best (or think they learn best) by watching slick video presentations that combine many of these elements.

For me, nothing beats the printed word. Naturally, a good graphic can enhance and clarify the words, but the words come first. Not that I always like to read them. There was a time in the long, distant past when I would actually read a manual for a new appliance or for a new computer program. Today I just plunge right in, most of the time. However, when it comes to assembling some new purchase, I still usually follow the directions, or try to.

Way back when, most directions were almost totally text only. Then came muddled graphics where everything was labeled but nothing was readable. Slowly the graphics improved and became more numerous. Then another disaster struck. Directions were being written in English by people with a limited understanding of the language. That's when a lot of people gave up in disgust and hired somebody else to assemble the product. Today, directions rely heavily on multiple diagrams and photos with little, if any text. In my view, the pendulum has swung too far. There are people, of course, who can quickly and easily decipher a diagram and recreate it in the real world. Well I can read and follow a diagram, I don't do so easily, and I can be easily confused. It is very reassuring to have some text to go along with the diagrams. Let me give you an example:

My latest purchase was a new barbecue. This is our third barbecue in about thirty years. One of the features of this appliance was its supposed ease of assembly. Somewhere, I think in the store advertising, I was told that it could be assembled in fifteen minutes. Perhaps - after you've already assembled three or four for practice. It took me closer to an hour and fifteen minutes, and I still have perhaps the hardest part left: the handle, which appears to be made up of about a dozen pieces - either that or I have left out pieces somewhere else. As I was admiring my handiwork this morning, I realized that I had switched two bolts. One was intended to help hold the LP tank in place, but it was now on the wrong side. I blame the directions. When you have just two pieces of almost identical metal to which a third piece has to be attached, it can be very difficult to match them up correctly. However, had the directions indicated the reason why the two bolts were different, I could have immediately checked to make sure they were in the correct place. A few well-chosen textual directions would have made the assembly job much easier, and I would have approached the whole project less tenuously.

This problem of over-reliance on graphics and symbols extends far beyond mere assembly directions. My mother's electric stove has a separate control to switch between bake and broil. Unfortunately, the control uses symbols only (a growing trend that truly exasperates me). After studying the symbols, I realized that one represented the bottom oven element with waves of heat radiating up while the other was the mirror opposite with heat radiating down. Aha! But I wasted a significant number of seconds figuring out what the symbols meant. Had the symbols been accompanied by a little text, the whole process would have been instantaneous. Worse yet, the next time I go to use such an appliance, I'll probably have to decode the symbols all over again. More wasted time! Sometimes you don't have the time to waste. For some reason, I have a problem with the "No left (or right) turn" symbol. It is an arrow curving left or right with a large diagonal red line through it. I understand the symbolism. The diagonal red line means "no" or "not". But, I always have to take a few seconds to decode what the symbol means. Can I or can I not turn left? Three simple words added to the sign would, of course, make it perfectly clear: "No Left Turn". I know, these symbols are supposed to be understandable no matter what language you speak. And they are, but I can't help feeling that the addition of some text, in whatever the local predominant language is, would be helpful. Of course some symbolization is necessary. I would not, for example, want to travel to Quebec and find that all of the traffic information was in text, but in French. But don't abandon text either. Symbols are more efficient than trying to translate from one language to another, but less efficient than text in your native language, at least for people like me.

When I'm browsing with Internet Explorer I always have the "text and icons" option turned on for the tool bar. Again, for some reason, I have a problem with some of the icons. "Refresh", for example is a problem for me. I have trouble because the symbolization isn't immediately recognizable and because the graphic is so detailed that it takes longer to assimilate. It makes sense, once you study it, but its purpose is not immediately obvious. The worst example, for me, is the "Up folder", as I call it, icon in Windows XP. Why Microsoft thought Windows needed a user interface update is beyond me. It's the one part of Windows that didn't need improving! But I rant. The new symbol is much more detailed and stylized. And I never recognize it immediately. In time I probably will. But I sure wish I knew a way to replace it with the older more obvious icon. (Those parts of XP that can be reverted to the "classic" look I have already changed.)

We live in a world full of symbols: There are three almost identical symbols on the dash of my car: turn on the rear wiper, turn it on intermitedly, and turn on the washer. I still have to take a second look to figure our which one I want - and that can be dangerous when you're driving. Please, manufacturers, use the symbols, but use text too! Remember, we are different. We don't all decode symbols as well as we do text - and some of us don't decode text as well as symbols. Some things are too important or critical to leave to symbols alone.

Copyright © 2002 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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