Car Repairs and the Design of Documents

I’m sitting in the waiting room of the local Honda dealership, waiting a few patient hours for the mechanics to fix the alignment on my Accord and replace all four tires. I’m about to launch into a complaint about my current car, so before I do that, I want to explain to the American Honda Motor Co. that I loved my 2000 Accord. Operationally, economically, and ergonomically, it was the best car I ever owned. In fact, if someone hadn’t pulled out in front of me against the light, killing off that car, I’d still be driving it. However, reality set in, and I was told that the car was a complete loss, thus requiring me to get a new car.

Given my satisfaction with the 2000 Accord, I went for another recent-model Accord, same color, a few extra features, muy bien.

However, as I came to learn, all was not muy bien. The ergonomics of the 2009 Accord are not as good as the 2000 model by a long shot. The problem? My lines of sight in for the front, sides, and back of the car are awful. These issues are important when you’re pulling into a tight parking place or backing up. The backing-up part I learned first. The ’09 Accord has a ramp (for lack of a better word) in the back window that slopes upward and prevents me from seeing the rear of the car. Result? I backed into a post. A month later, again unable to judge the view out the back, I backed into someone else’s car. Hello, higher insurance bill. Okay, so I need to be better about using my side mirrors when backing up. But, again, the design of the rear window makes it difficult to see.

The other line-of-sight issue with the ’09 Accord is up front. I have the driver’s seat raised as high as I can, and I still cannot see or judge the sides of the car. This makes it difficult to turn into parking spaces and to ensure that I’m staying in my lane. The left side isn’t much better, as the curve of the hood makes it difficult to see where the line on the pavement is compared to the side of the car. Result? Multiple bumps and scrapes, especially on the right side of the car, and even when I’m traveling slowly, I occasionally bump into the curb on a turn. Do that enough times, and your axle starts to take it personally. So yes, I got a C in driver’s education, but I also never had these problems with the 2000 Accord because I could see the edges of the car at all times and accurately judge the distance between the car and a nearby object. I might’ve gotten one alignment job, not three, because I wasn’t constantly bumping into curbs or scraping up against poles and walls (the estimates today, should I choose to accept them: $700 for the front bumper, $1200 for the back-right quarter panel).

What does this extended gripe about the design of my current car have to do with technical writing? It comes down to one word: usability. This can apply to a paper document, a help menu, or a website. The electronic version of my unfortunate Honda experience has to be Microsoft Word, which I’ve been using since it was first released. It’s the ocean in which I swim. However, every few years, the programmers get bored and decide to redesign and “improve” things. However, I’m convinced that Microsoft beta-tests their improvements with students who are fresh-out of college. Why? A new user doesn’t have nearly the same headaches trying to do things that a long-time user has because I’m used to the way I’ve been doing it for 20 years! Okay, so I’m getting old, fine. But I don’t think I’m off base when I say that designers and technical writers share some blame if they don’t make a design easy, familiar, and “intuitive” to use–not just for new users, but for people who have been using the product for X years.

There are ways to make new versions of an existing product better. For instance, if content has been rearranged, it might be better to use larger fonts or extra callout boxes to help users better “navigate” a page. If a particular piece of content has been moved from one section to another, make a note of it. New users won’t care, but long-time users will appreciate the navigation tip. If you’re going to make the visuals slick, sleek, and groovy, don’t make them all that to the point where you can’t read the font. And if you’re going to make a car bigger, be cognizant of the fact that people still want to be able to drive safely and have a good view of the road.

Regardless of what you’re designing, it’s important to get user feedback and to always have the end user in mind. You’ll save them time and–whether they’re driving a car or trying to get an assignment done on schedule–save them money.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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