(Not So) Easy to Assemble

Successful installation at last!

My father recently bought an “easy to assemble” hanging light. It proved to be not so easy to assemble, even for a man who can fix cars, build houses and digitally retouch photographs.

Normally patient and even-tempered, he became so frustrated that he actually mailed me the instructions along with a cryptic note suggesting they could use my help.

He’s not alone. I did a quick poll on Twitter about the state of assembly instructions and got an earful (a Tweerful?).

“The simplicity of the instructions rivaled those of the least complicated nuclear sub.”

“So easy my 10-year-old prodigy could do it!”

“Having put this together, I now feel qualified to perform brain surgery.”

As DJ Dynasty Handbag would say, “What’s up with that?” Why can’t easy-to-understand instructions make good on their promise?

Ooh-wee, I’ll tell you why.

Assembly instructions are so badly written for one simple reason: Writers don’t write them — some guy from engineering does. And to compound matters, those instructions are often translated (word-for-word!) into English by someone using a translation dictionary. As opposed to, say, a translator.

I know this because I used to work for a major retailer that sold lots of “assembly required” products. They (perhaps offensively) dubbed them “Jinglish instructions,” and it was my job to rewrite them. It felt good to know my work would prevent heads across America from being banged against walls.

What separates the good from the bad? Here’s what I found.


  • Bad instructions assume everyone has an advanced degree in electrical engineering and is a mind reader.
  • Good instructions assume everyone is an idiot. An idiot who would rather sustain a mild-to-moderate flesh wound than spend more than three seconds trying to figure out how to screw Hanging Ring A into Hanging Ring B.


  • Bad instructions are written by whoever is around and has a translation dictionary.
  • Good instructions are written by a professional copywriter — or at least a writer who knows how to use clear, concise language and short, action-oriented sentences.


  • Bad instructions call the same widget a “Thingamajig” in Diagram A and a “Whoseywhatsit” in Diagram B.
  • Good instructions keep it consistent.


  • Bad instructions either don’t have them, don’t label them correctly or don’t have someone who knows how to draw creating them.
  • Good instructions are clearly drawn and accurately labeled. Really good instructions use high-quality photographs of the step-by-step assembly process.


  • Bad instructions go through no usability testing or are tested by the team that made the product.
  • Good instructions are tested and approved by your grandmother.

So here is my plea to companies worldwide:

You are spending millions of dollars to develop your product. Please, please throw another few hundred dollars at it and hire a real writer so your customers don’t hate you. It doesn’t have to be me, but it can’t be “that guy from manufacturing who can do it on his lunch break.”

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