Design Strategies for Accessible Technical Documents

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

The complexity and poor accessibility of technical documents is a well-known and often parodied fact. This lesson provides strategies for improving the utility and accessibility of common consumer-facing technical documentation.

What's a Bun Foot?

Do you know what a bun foot is? What about a wood stretcher? Perhaps you know how to utilize a plug lock? If you don't know the answer to any of these questions, don't feel bad. There are only a few people who know what those things are, and most of them are the people who actually wrote the technical documentation in which those terms appear.

Technical writing refers to documents like assembly instructions, user manuals, and other specialized reference materials. The challenge for any technical writer is to understand a product or process almost as well as the engineers who built it while simultaneously reducing that material to a written form that an everyday person can understand.

Technical documents like user guides are not very useful unless they are accessible.
Illustration of a User Guide

If the example involving the bun foot, wood stretcher, and plug lock seemed a little over-the-top, it actually isn't. Those three parts aren't things you'd find in a nuclear reactor, an airplane, or a skyscraper, but part of the consumer-facing assembly instructions for a queen-size bed. This type of jargon means that the assembly instructions are not very accessible to the consumer.

Making Technical Writing More Accessible

Creating an accessible technical document starts with a great technical writer. An accessible technical document is one that is easy to understand and follow at the consumer level. It's important to remember that high-accessibility is more of a ''sweet spot'' than a finish line. Technical writing can be too complex, but it can also be too simple. We've all been on the receiving end of technical documents that included only diagrams and numbered steps. Such limited technical documentation can be equally frustrating to consumers.

Now let's look at some ways that technical writers can find that accessibility window.

Design

When a writer begins putting together a technical document, there are few common foundations that are applicable in virtually any industry or situation. An accessible technical document is one that is laser-focused on a target audience. Terms like ''bun foot'' or ''plug lock'' might be perfectly accessible in a reference manual about how to operate a nuclear power stations where the reader is a highly skilled engineer, but it's not accessible to the everyday consumer of a queen-size bed. Good technical writers design their documents to be tailored to their readers.

A second cornerstone of accessible technical writing is the appropriate use of images, diagrams, or other visual aids. A bun foot in text form is far less accessible than an image or a diagram of these parts. Visuals like this eliminate the need for consumers to try to find this information on their own from a different source.

Format

Have you ever pulled out a giant, seemingly never-ending product insert for a relatively uncomplicated product or process? If you look carefully, however, you'll notice that it's long not because of its voluminous content but rather because it contains technical documentation in a half a dozen languages.

Chances are that it's also written in some of the smallest print you can find. Neither of these formatting elements do much to make a technical document more accessible. Better to use common terms, in a readable format, and without voluminous, extraneous information. Here's a few examples of ''jargon'' being made more accessible in both design and format:

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