20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.

Perceived quality of product instructions

Perceived quality of product instructions

On a lark, I ran a poll asking what people thought of either the product instructions they use or they create. I’m curious if there is a difference.

I asked both groups to select from the same keywords – 5 of which seemed negative and 5 seemed positive to me. I asked each group to chose 5 that resonate.

There results are in. With 182 total responding, we see (click the pictures to see them larger):




Consumers (n=77) chose helpful, incomplete, confusing, accurate, and logical as the top 5 words that apply to product instructions.

Technical Communication Professionals


People who create product instructions for a living (n=105) chose clear, helpful, accurate, logical, and attractive.

Notice that consumers chose “attractive” as the least word.


To show you what these look like compared to each other:


Or another way to visualize it:



Your thoughts? What does this hint at to you?

By Sharon Burton


  1. Sharon, I think what these responses show is simply more evidence of what John Carroll called the paradox of sense making. Systematic instruction does not work because the learner’s current mental model is more real to them than the instructions they are reading. Thus they find the instructions neither clear not logical, even when they are technically correct.

    So, the experiments documented in The Nurnberg Funnel actually are the the wider studies you are looking for, and they both map and explain the perception gap you are seeing here.

    This is not to say that there is not a quality gap, of course, since there clearly is one. It also seems well established by multiple experiments, that people routinely overestimate their competence and the quality of their work.

  2. Ken Munson

    Interesting insights Sharon. I believe much of the delta between the producer and consumer can be summed up exactly by their respective roles in the value chain.

    Producers need to provide documentation that is supports sales cycles and adheres to/creates a defendable product warranty. To limit legal liability and to support sales and customer perceptions, the producer will aim for an attractive but minimalist approach. This is reflected by the priority that producers give to their instructions in the overall strategy and to the technical documentation personnel that produce it – both are often a necessary but not highly valued in a Profit & Loss statement. Therefore, the marginal cost to produce these instructions is often tightly controlled.

    The consumer, on the other hand, needs logical/accurate instructions that promote usability and maximum adoption and value. Their concern is not marginal cost but marginal utility – concepts that are often at odds with each other. As with most production/consumption activities, there is often a positive correlation between marginal cost to produce and marginal utility in consumption – meaning that the lower investment in more meaningful instructions generally results in lower utility to the consumer.

    One can often discern a vendor’s commitment to customer value by investigating their investment in technical instructions that adhere to the consumers’ paradigm rather than the producers’ circumstances.

    • Sharon Burton

      You may have a point, Ken. I’m not sure. I see a disconnect, somewhat, between the value added by tech comm pros and the value received by our audience.

      Both groups say product instructions are helpful, which, I think means our users are giving us that. But our consumers tie at incomplete and confusing, meaning our perception that we’re being clear is not holding out.

      I SO wish someone with real money would pay for a large study on this and other questions. I would really like a very large poll to see if my results means anything.


  1. Are you killing your marketing efforts after the sale is made? Yes you are. | Sharon Burton - […] Survey after survey shows product instructions are poor and don’t meet the customers needs. And this includes your product…

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