The minimum requirement of any good technical document is that it communicates what is required of the user in a clear, concise, manner. Yet, far too often, technical manuals bear a striking similarity to experimental poetry, where the meaning is known only to the author. Peter Vogel once argued that users typically refer to the manual only when they are already frustrated. While this is certainly the case, I would further posit that on occasion, the source of the user’s frustration can be the technical manual itself. Case in point: The Martin Archery Take-Down Bow OWNER’S MANUAL.
To be fair, the exploded view of the bow on the front page of the four page manual does offer clear instructions for assembly. The diagram accurately represents the parts and assembly. The clear directions listed here allowed me to quickly assemble the body of the bow without incident. However, that is only half the task. A bow without a string is little more than a piece of furniture, which leads me to part two.
Stringing the Bow: Where it all went wrong
Page two of the manual features a paragraph entitled “Stringing your Bow.” Martin Archery included a (rarely included) tool called a bowstringer to assist with this task, promising that its use would prevent the limbs of the bow from distorting. The manual offers a lengthy paragraph extolling the virtues of the bowstringer. What was conspicuously absent was any text informing a first time user as to how to effectively use the bowstringer. Instead, there is a drawing that a stringer being used, devoid of any further instruction:
Attempt one: I placed the stringer on the limbs of the bow, and then slipped the loops of the bowstring itself over the limbs after the bowstringer. I followed the procedure outlined in the diagram, and it worked—for all of three seconds. The stringer caused the bow string to slip from its grooves. Once the tension was released, the limb of the bow de-flexed, colliding with my ribs. After no small amount of profanity, I moved on to
Attempt two: A few of the more crucial portions of the legal action of Wile E. Coyote vs. Acme Corporation echoed in my mind, as I attempted once again to string the bow. This time, I wound up with the string dangling loose inside of the now taut bowstring. This was problematic because an arrow could potentially tangle in the stringer.
Attempt 3: I placed both the bow and the stringer on the limbs of the bow; then I placed my foot on the stringer. I tugged upward, just as the diagram suggested; this time I wound up with the stringer dangling loosely from the top of the bow with the other end secured to the top limb. At this point I gave up and consulted this YouTube video:
In the space of less than a minute (the video shows how to string and un-string the bow, I paused after the first part), the YouTube video successfully demonstrated, how to quickly string my bow. While the manual was lacking in terminology and proper instructions, the video named each part of the stringer and where to properly place the stringer in relation the bow, demonstrating that the stringer does not “tow” the string into place, but rather bends the limbs of the bow allowing the user to move the loose end of the string to the notches while keeping tension on the body of the bow rather than the bowstring.
The Martin Archery Take-Down Bow OWNER’S MANUAL stands as a cautionary tale of how technical writing, when done poorly, can be hazardous. A lack of clear verbiage accompanying the diagram, which would inform the reader on where to place the parts of the stringer and how to use it properly, resulted in frustration and lost time. This could have easily been avoided, had the writers applied the same care and attention to detail in crafting the instructions for stringing the bow as they did for its assembly. At the cost of perhaps another page of text, the writers could have added more diagrams, or at the very least, step by step instructions for where to place the stringer in relation to the bow. Additionally, it would have given the user the all important detail that the body of the bow is to be bent, releasing tension on the bowstring, rather than trying to, by physical strength, pull the string into the notches. Had such measures been taken, Martin’s client would have experienced far less frustration, and it goes without saying fewer bruised ribs!