Evaluation and Critique

When All Else Fails, Read the Manual.

by Jessie Hanson


What makes an operator’s manual good? Is it something where, like the famous example, you know it when you see it? Or can we distill it down into quantifiable qualities? According to Duncan Kent, Philip Hodgson, and others, all good operator’s manuals have certain attributes and structures. These attributes and structures serve the primary, two-part goal of every operator’s manual everywhere: They train the operator and they save the support staff time and money. Manuals have a reputation for being intimidating and it’s well-earned. The monarch and viceroy of manual quality are “findability” and “non-threateningness.”

The well-designed operator’s manual contains a “Goldilocks” amount of information (HCi): not too much and not too little. Too much information risks burying the useful bits under a mountain of data that the operator will never, actually need to use and thus terrifying her away from even opening the book. Also, how big is the book itself? If it’s the size of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, it’s both too information-dense and too scary. (UF) However, it can’t be stingy with information, either. It needs to cover all reasonable and necessary scenarios that might arise for the operator to solve. (HCi)

Layout is another crucial piece of manual design. White space is reassuring to readers. (Kent). It tells them that there’s not a daunting amount of information on the page and gives them time to “rest” in between bundles of data. (HCi) Wide margins allow for the user to make their own notes. (UF) Font choice should always be simple and readable. Times Roman or Arial is the best option. (Kent) There’s some debate whether the font, whichever you choose, should be a serif (HCi) or a sans serif (UF) font. Either way, it should not be smaller than 10-point, at the minimum.

Other small points are helpful. Does the manual have a helpline number clearly displayed, for the inevitable scenario in which that the operator just can’t find the answer? Are the instructions listed out step-by-step?

Lastly, but most important, is the information highly “findable”? Can the operator quickly and easily locate the piece of information they need in 1-3 minutes? The manual should have an extensive index, a list of figures, a clear table of contents, and a glossary. If the information is buried in a tome the size of Tutankhamen’s tomb, it does no good.

I work doing high-complexity testing in hospital laboratory. We will soon be acquiring a new hematology analysis instrument. I looked up the manual for the new instrument, the Sysmex Automated Hematology Analyzer, to see what I thought of it. Is it a good operator’s manual? Could I read it and feel confident about operating and maintaining the instrument?

Going by the parameters set out by Kent and Hodgson, the Sysmex manual errs on the side of enormous. It weighs in at 306 pages. This is arguably justified. The Sysmex Anayzer is an enormous, enormously complex, and enormously expensive instrument. (If both the Sysmex and I were to be kidnapped by Somali pirates, the Sysmex would be ransomed first. I am replaceable; it is not.) Nevertheless, the sheer size of the document is intimidating.

The layout of the manual is “fearlessly pragmatic.” (HCi) A single column with wide margins leaves lots of reassuring white space and plenty of room for notes. The font is large, clear, and easy to read. The document is in portrait orientation. (UF mentioned that landscape orientation is “less intimidating” than portrait orientation. This statement piqued my interest, but no one else I could find mentioned it.)

As for structural elements, the System manual comes up short. There is no glossary, although this could possibly be excused by the fact that this manual is written for a tiny niche audience: highly-trained medical technologists who are intimately familiar with hematology principles and analyzers. They should already know the terminology.

As for the principles of language and style, and the desired concept of avoiding jargon, the Sysmex manual uses a lot of technical terms, even mathematical and statistical formulas. It’s not an easy read. Technicality and complexity are the nature of this beast, though. Avoiding technical would hamstring the usefulness of this document.

The instructions are laid out step-by-step and accompanied by clear, line-drawn figures. I can understand what goes where when I look at them, a joyful discovery, since sometimes, even to the trained eye, the interior of these sorts of instruments is a horrifying snarl of wires and tubes, robotic arms, and piercing needles. There is no list of figures, although the figures themselves are referenced in the text and labeled on the page.

There is an index at the end of the document and it includes an extensive list of search terms. The table of contents clearly lists the manual’s contents, which are ranked into third-level module divisions.  You can read the table and know where to turn.

Overall, this is a “good” operator’s manual. It has a non-threatening layout, easy-to-read pages, an adequate index, and a clear table of contents. It’s neatly divided into readable/findable sections which are less than ten pages, as recommended by Kent. However, it’s missing a glossary, which would be helpful even for the familiar operator who’s navigating a new procedure. This is also a PDF document. You have to scroll through hundreds of pages to find the one page that you need and there’s no way to do a keyword search. Finally, it’s long. Really long. Most non-primary operators will never need 90% of the information included. Condensing the top 25 procedures into a laminated, spiral-bound, quick-reference guide would be helpful.