©2016 Mark Henderson
I know that every reader has heard—and most likely has used—the cliché, “Think outside the box.” I never did like that cliché. Partly, because it was, you know, so cliché, but also because every time I heard it used, I would find myself asking, “What box?” This attention to being literal has caused me to miss a few points in my day, but it has also lent itself well to technical writing: Clear. Concise. Valid.
Technical writers, by and large, are literal people. We look at “stuff”, hear stuff, watch stuff, read stuff, and constantly break this stuff down in our minds into easily digestible parts, into logical sequences, into process steps, visualizing how stuff works and trying to convey that to our audience. We don’t let slick-sounding clichés slip by; we ask questions: What does it mean? Why did they do it this way or say it that way? Or (my favorite), Why does this sentence or picture make my head feel wonky?
Sometime back, I wrote a blog on Why the OEM’s Manual Might Not Be Right–At Least For Your Business. In keeping with that title’s theme, I’d like to give a specific example of taking a source material—in this case, an OEM’s instruction manual—to create a document that was clear, concise, and I believe significantly more valid for our use than that provided by the OEM’s manual.
And the area of my focus? You guessed it: INSIDE the box! The box to which I’m referring is the frame of this instructional picture or “the box”. My mission, in this task procedure, was to describe the steps and critical sequence for replacing both pressure relief disks for this 2-disc assembly using the OEM’s graphic. However, knowing that this pressure relief disc was used in critical applications, I also knew that “getting’ it wrong” could result in (to use a euphemism from a previous industry) “A really bad hair day.”
Getting’ it wrong could be inadvertently inserting an incorrect model rupture disc (the assembly accommodated numerous models, each with differing design properties), putting the right discs in the wrong sequence (i.e. putting the wrong disc first), or orienting one or both wrong relative to the system pressure. Any of these errors could result in a hazard or an unnecessary shut-down—either scenario being unacceptable.
So, look at the frame and see if you think that this is clear. If you think it’s foolproof, you must be thinking/looking OUTSIDE the box, and we need you to think INSIDE: Examine the frame and ask if this box tells the right story (i.e. is it valid?)
Because of the big downside for getting’ it wrong, I really tried to focus INSIDE the box to see if that graphic illustrated the step(s) to make it foolproof. To me, it did not. The OEM’s manual was insufficient for the applications in which these PRDs were used, so, I augmented the box:
Now, before any of y’all graphic artists start making fun of me, please note that I failed even the most elementary art class that required any drawing. Also, for you technical writing professionals with slick graphics packages that can make you look like Leonardo Da Vinci, please refrain from calling my “art” childish. I had to use Word, but I still needed to make it foolproof.
With those disclaimers, note how I took the OEM’s nebulous instruction and added some simple color directional arrows to make sure that the correct rupture disc was placed in the correct position and that both were oriented correctly relative to the system pressure (i.e. clear).
And, I kept all the information simple (i.e. concise), and later, it was field-tested using the actual hardware with my procedure, step-by-step. And guess what? It worked! (Valid!).
As George Peppard on the TV show The A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.” To translate sub-par instruction from the OEM—when the OEM’s manual was deemed unfit for use in our application—I had to think INSIDE the box.