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Thursday, January 26, 2006

You Can’t Make Me Read That!
Aliteracy in the Work Place

Sometimes workers don't have time to read or they don't want to read. There's a term for that—aliteracy. Pat Sweeney described this phenomenon in his paper, "Developing Work Instructions for Aliterate Users" (PDF), which he presented to the American Society for Quality at their Annual Quality Congress in 2003. He noted aliteracy comes in two forms: functional and conditional.

Functional aliteracy includes people who have poor reading skills, and though that can be an issue in any work place, the people I'm addressing today can be defined as conditionally aliterate. Conditional aliteracy includes those people who possess satisfactory reading skills but find themselves in conditions that make reading text-heavy material unappealing or impossible.

Let me give you an example of this. Think for a minute about what happens when the computer screen freezes (typically only when a deadline looms). Working on a PC, the first thing I do is push Ctrl-Alt-Delete and see if I can solve it with the Task Manager screen. If that doesn't work, I'll probably reboot the computer. Next, because we're not big enough to have a tech support department, I'll ask the tech-savvy colleague in the cubicle next to me for help. If I'm working from home, I may call the manufacturer's help desk.

The point is, I will run through a whole host of possibilities to solve the problem, and not until I've exhausted all other options will it occur to me to read the user's guide that came with the computer.

Quite honestly, I don't even want to read it because it's not written for me. It's written to satisfy lawyers and auditors. I can never find what I need, no matter how many different ways I try to identify the problem.

Here's what I believe computer companies need to do when they create these user's guides:

  • Write like they're talking to an average person—better yet, an average person with minimal computer skills.
  • Organize their information based on "how to" do something, not on what features they offer. (Discover what we've done with Repair and Testing Instructions.)
  • Make their day-to-day instructions as simple as their assembly instructions:
    • Color-code topics.
    • Use graphics instead of words.
    • Space the text so it doesn't overwhelm.

Writing like this—for the user—might go a long way toward easing the trepidation people sometimes feel when working with computers. Work Instructions need the same angle.  They need to be written for the user if they are ever going to be used. Otherwise employees will skip right over the reading and take a guess at how to do something, which can cause major disasters.



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Renee Callies

Renee provides training and direction regarding writing, editing and developing the standards for the development of work instructions. Renee's 12 years in education give her a strong background in teaching writing techniques and developing usable, consistent standards. She served as a Co-Director of the Third Coast Writing Project at Western Michigan University from 1997 to 2006. View more of her writing at