Saturday, December 29, 2012

Better Design Or, Just don't do it

As I put up the Christmas lights this week, I thought about how much technical writing--especially in user manuals--would just go away if things were better designed for their audience. I'm not suggesting about putting myself out of business...but product design that was better targeted for the product's users would let me spend my time talking about stuff that really does need explanation.

For instance: timers for lights. Timers for lights inside the house support having lights come on and off repeatedly throughout the day. This doesn't make a lot of sense for the inside Christmas lights but these timers are also used to make a house looked "lived in" when the occupants are away for a few days (the timers cause the lights come on in the morning, go off a few hours later, come back on in the evening, etc.)

But, for outdoor Christmas lights, you don't need that much sophistication. All the user wants is to have he lights come on in the evening, stay on for a few hours, and then go off until they come on at the same time the next day. While you can get very sophisticated dedicated devices, I typically get a device design to be used with a block heater (for those of you living where you don't get Canadian winters: a block heater is a device you put in your car's motor to heat the engine block up so that your car will start even in very cold weather). These devices allow the user to set the time that the light is to come on and how long the light is to stay on (or to specify a time to turn off). The current block heaters have reduced the user interface to two buttons (sometimes, just one) and a numeric display (some times two digits, sometimes just one). Some explanation of how to use this UI is required in the accompanying user manual.

But even that supplies more functionality than users need. Christmas lights are used for only a few weeks, at most. Over that time, the sun sets--the point at which the lights should come one--at roughly the same time very day. And, quite frankly, I don't feel a passionate desire to control the duration: anywhere from 4 to 6 hours is fine with me. I don't need as much control as the block heater timers I'm using provide me.

And, somewhere in the world, people who create light-up Christmas decorations have figured this out. For instance, my wife picked up a battery powered Christmas wreath that has a switch with three settings: On, Off, and Timer. Turning the switch to "Timer" causes the lights to come on, stay on for 6 hours, turn off, and come on again in 18 hours ( the same time the next day as when I first set the switch to "Timer"). This wreath wouldn't work for a commercial firm that needed to turn on multiple wreaths distribute over a large area at sunset on the first day--but it's fine for a home owner who needs to turn a few switches in a single home.

With this design, the instructions boil down to one sentence of instruction and one sentence of reassurance (and I bet that both sentences could be made both better and shorter):

To have the lights come on at the same time very day and stay on for six hours: Turn the switch to "Timer" on the first day at the time you want the lights to come on. As long as you leave the switch at "Timer" the lights will come on at the same time each day and turn themselves off after six hours.

Reading or read

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