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Lance, I kow where you're coming from. Just the other day, we purchased a piece of exercise equipment. "Some Assembly Required" was written on the box. We discovered that "Some Assembly Required" meant that not one part of the machine was remotely attached to any other part.

And why is it that 4 pages of assembly instructions in Spanish or French translate into 2 paragraphs of English? I think they must know how inept we are and don't even bother.

But we fooled them! There we were, four of us, with 5 master's degrees between us. One is an engineer. It only took us 3 hours to assemble the little sucker.

But every time I use the equipment, it worries me that we have a hand full of screws and a metal bar left over.


I almost became the lead of a technical writing team. Did not take it up as tech-writing jobs seem to be the first ones being shipped overseas. Ironic, considering I am an Indian myself.

My mission was not to write the user manuals and technical specs but to serve as the interface between the Engineers and the writers. They had hired non engineers to write and needed someone to translate :-)

For some reason being a TA who taught the same product to freshmen in school made them think I was a good fit. But this was not some product you would see in a store, it was a chip design tool to be used only by engineers.

So maybe they wanted an Engineer who could write bad English, so the engineers using the product would not feel lost.

My mother was the handyman of the house; there aren't many things she cannot fix. On the other hand there aren't many things my father and me haven't managed to break. India is not the best place for a DIY enthusiast and I think my mother would have loved it here.

I went a month without assembling a computer table as I was waiting for my fiancée to visit so I could get it assembled it with her help.

Some Engineer I am


I so hear you on the problem of bad design. I remember once reading some piece or other on design, and the author made the point that good designs provide obvious signs as to their function and encourage proper use while discouraging improper use - the idea is that a well-designed object can be -- and is likely to be -- used properly in the absence of an instructional guide of any kind.

Good design: doors with push plates: the only way to open them is to push on them, and thus one doesn't need the sign saying "push." Bad design: doors with pull bars that say "Push" - the shape says pull, the sign says push = confusion.

VCRs are usually examples of bad design, especially if they cannot be operated in the absence of the remote and a menu screen.

There's a guy who's designing furniture now who wants all of it to be easy to assemble (and take apart) with no tools but your hands. It looks like pretty intuitive stuff. :)

I usually do best with assembly when I just look at the pictures, and ignore the text. The problem, of course, is that you must look -carefully_ at the pictures, to avoid assembling things in the wrong order or back-to-front.

Oddly, I have better luck with things that are on the cheap end, being just a bunch of parts and some random screws with a badly drawn exploded schematic, than I do with the high-end ones that come with all kinds of little tools and tricky hardware and complicated, extensive manuals. (I suppose the logical trajectory of this line of logic would be that a pile of boards and some nails would be the easiest to assemble of all...)


Sorry, but I've never had a problem assembling something bought at the store.

Moving on before I get stoned....

Testing these things costs money. Probably a lot of it. You need to bring people in to try to build the product. You need to pay engineers to watch them try to build the product. Then you need to probably redesign the thing. Then you have to re-test it. Then you have to re-design it. You have to hire people with a strange mix of skills (engineering and writing) and a fair amount of pedantry to write up the instructions. Then you have to test those.

Meanwhile, the style of the furniture that you are trying to sell is going out and a new style is coming in, which means the process repeats.

So if you are buying a $50 piece of furniture from IKEA or Target or wherever, and there appear to be $45 in parts in the box, what do you think was cut out of the picture?
This kind of thing is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Like people who expect quality customer service when buying a $300 Dell computer.

I should probably leave now.

Mr. Shakes

I never have much of a problem with the instructions, it's the inexactitude with which self assembly products are manufactured that drives me insane. It doesn't matter how well you follow the instructions, or how great you are with a screwdriver, hammer or other tool, the bloody things are absolutely 100% guaranteed to wobble like a jolly Father Christmas.

A self assembly chair has yet to be made with all its legs cut to the same exact length, or with struts that adequately bridge the gap between them. And don't even get me started on the holes they drill in the seat. There are deathwatch beetles with more precision.

So don't feel bad - it really isn't your fault.


The book on all this is "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald Norman. Some engineers have read it; many more have not, or else I wouldn't have to reach directly over the burners to turn off my stove.

The practice of using what you make is called "eating your own dogfood," and you can always tell when some team's not doing it. Of course, sometimes it works and sometimes it just has odd effects. Excel, for example, is amazingly good at keeping schedules, because that's what the Excel team uses it for.

The problem on competent teams is that cost-of-manufacture and ease-of-use tend to be opposing values. Want to put usable front-panel controls on a DVD player? You're going to have to figure out a separate communications channel for them. You'll probably need a microcontroller to manage the front panel. And what happens if, say, someone presses Stop on the remote at the same time someone presses Play on the front panel? It has to NOT be "the player bursts into flame," which means you have to test that, and every other possible interaction.

Here's my favorite example of the last few years: The Sony PlayStation 3 will have nine processors (that is, the Cell chip has nine cores.) But we game programmers are only allowed to use eight. That's because IBM has decided that, if a chip comes off the assembly line with one defective core, they'll ship it anyway and their customers will just deal with it. This will increase yields, I guess.

Kevin Wolf

Maverlous, Lance. Very funny. I'm sure, as pointed out above, that this is all caused by a push to reduce costs.

BTW, my chair is still wobbley. If you get a chance...


I almost cried when you wrote about IKEA. To this day, I don't get it. The ex did. I swear that's why I kept him around. Who gets poorly drawn Swedish stuff? Not AG.

David Udin

Jeez Lance--tabs go into slots. That's why you're having so much trouble.



So it is me, not the engineers. Damn.


No leaving. You have to stick around and face the consequences of your own competence.

I'm also going to show your comment to the blonde. Maybe it will keep her away from IKEA.


Thanks for the heads-up on the book and the funny and actually instructive comment.

Mr Shakes,

I appreciate it the encouragement, but see David Udin's comment.

mac macgillicuddy

About when I put my last TV stand together, and the cabinet doors supposed to cover the video storage shelf fell out when I lifted it upright, I decided I'd assembled my last THING. Ever. Following this, I accidentally ordered not one, not two, but FOUR things from an online merchant, and all four came in boxes that, when opened, revealed the requirement of assembly.

These four things are still in their boxes. And if my wife happens to happen upon this post, and this comment, perhaps now she understands why that is.

Did someone say used furniture? It may not be new, but you're benefitting from someone else having gone through the madness of putting it together.

Anne Laurie

Ha! My husband actually IS a technical writer (or, as I call him, Speaker-to-Geeks), a field he wandered into after two years as an Electrical Engineering major, followed by a MA in English Lit and most of a second MA in Linguistics. One major factor in the awfulness of most assembly instructions overlooked by previous posters is the Pointy-Haired Boss factor... the MBAs who don't care whether the instructions are right or wrong, as long as the product can be certified ready-to-ship yesterday. Nothing guarantees an airborne manual like giving the writers the last iteration but one (or two, no, three, well, three-point-two)to work with, or to work backwards from. Or deciding to "copyedit" out a lot of surely-unnecessary words so that the instructions will fit on four sheets instead of six. Since most designers "see" in a way that isn't intuitive to the rest of us, producing a coherent instruction set is literally a matter of translating from Visual to English. Writing good manuals is a skill, like teaching, that isn't held in much respect today. It's assumed that people won't pay for quality until it directly impacts them, so the default is to badly-drawn exploded schematics and classroom babysitters. Of course, the MBAs are also happy that this creates a steady after-market in "Assembly for Dummies" books and private tutoring services...

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