Generally, I think we can agree that instruction manuals are not something you would choose to sit down and read cover to cover in your free time. While we may see them as dull sets of diagrams and steps, they are in fact a critical genre of technical communication. Underneath manuals’ clear purpose of instructing, manuals exist to unite technology with human usability. As James Paradis explains this significance in “Text and Action: The Operator’s Manual in Context and in Court,” “rendering public technologies into written procedures is a decisive step in the socialization of a technology” (1991, p. 269).
Paradis structures his discussion of how manuals interact with the user by first describing the four major components that make a manual: written and visual descriptions of the tool itself (object), an operator of the tool (agent), the environment in which the tool should be used (conditions), and the steps the operator must follow to use the tool properly (action) (1991, p. 258). With all four elements working together, manuals construct a reality where human action is efficiently aided by tools/technology. As this technology become more complex, technical writers must predict the interpretations and interactions audiences may have with a manual to create written and “operational coherence and simplicity” (259).
While Paradis’s article focuses on a stud gun, its instruction manual, and the tool’s subsequent improper use by operators, the example highlights the severe consequences related to ambiguous manuals. When error or injury results from a product, legally, the argument becomes whether the manual failed the user or the user failed in understanding the manual. Related to these communication, safety, and legal consideration is the recognized reality that both “sales literature and operator’s manuals can exaggerate function and downplay hazard” (Paradis, 1991, p. 265). While this is a serious matter with many legal implications that Paradis emphasizes, I found this quote to be particularly interesting for auxiliary reasons. Again, from my perspective, heavily influence by my advertising education, Paradis’s mention of sales literature in relation to instruction manuals piqued my interest. Advertisements can be known to embellish benefits and omit negatives of the client’s product. There is a fine line between putting a product in its best light and misinforming an audience. Paradis says that this fine line is also found in creating instruction manuals, where any steps indicated unclearly or vaguely can be detrimental to the audience. This connection between two different writing genres – sales and instructional literature – made me stop to think about instructional manuals further. Just because manuals function differently than advertisements in layout, tone, and organization, it does not dull either genre’s significance in the realm of communication. Both genres intent to help audiences better interact with the products and technology of today. In the grand scope of Paradis’s article, he so eloquently explains that instruction manuals’ fundamental goal is to bridge the gap between technology’s “mechanical function and social purpose” (1991, p. 258).