Useless Assistance: Frustration Relief for Hire

useless_assist_logo_valentinesA foggy morning in Central London. A man wipes his brow with his sleeve and consults some instructions during a shelf unit assembly, while an attractive curly haired woman in a white housecoat sips coffee and looks on from a nearby sofa. It seems like a common scene played out in any household after a flatpack furniture purchase, until I tell you these people don’t live together, never met until this morning, and she is paying him for his services. This is not a plot from the latest hit 50 Shades of Gray-type romance novel. He is a professional flatpack assembler.

Furniture assembly instruction retweets are a staple on @uselessassist. The industry that has conditioned us to devote hours of our own labor to do things once done for us, all for the reward of a cheaper price, often fails at instructing us on how to perform the required assembly tasks.

furniture_7Research by a UK Web site that helps home owners find professional tradesmen found that 44 per cent of adults were unable to assemble flat pack furniture, with unclear instructions cited as one of the common complaints. Most surprisingly, three-quarters of respondents would pay someone else to do the assembly for them.

I had recently read about a furniture assembler in San Francisco that sings opera and a man with autism in Edmonton with a knack for putting things together, and thought that a person who uses instructions from various manufacturers day in and day out would have some great insight into what comprises good assistance.

Finding someone who would talk with me was difficult, which was expected – why provide information to tech writers that would improve instructions and render their services unnecessary? A company that saw the benefit of sharing their experiences with the tech comm community and rescues people from useless assistance each day is We Love Flatpacks (@WeLoveFlatpacks). I spoke with company founder Stuart.

Tell me about your company. What drove you to pursue this idea?

I started the We Love Flatpacks service in 2012 because lots of people hate assembling flatpacked furniture, but unfortunately for them, there is an increasing trend of furniture and other products being delivered flatpacked. We have a team of eight who save busy Londoners from this bane of modern life.

What kinds of places do you get called into to do assembly work?

Lots of our work is in Central London so we get asked to visit lots of interesting places and people. We have assembled IKEA furniture in the multi-million pound Knightsbridge Apartments next to the Bulgari Hotel for a Saudi family. We also get called to newly built super cool apartments overlooking the Thames for corporate superstars. We have worked with famous radio DJ’s, Children’s writers, and producers.

furniture_4Why do people hire you to do assembly work? What is a typical customer profile?

Our customer base can be divided into two basic groups: those who are simply too busy to assemble a flat full of flatpacked furniture and those who find building flatpacked items difficult, if not impossible.

Do customers look negatively on products they have to hire you to assemble instead of following instructions themselves?

The customer’s experience with a brand starts well before they actually use the furniture. We have found that a frustrating assembly experience sticks in the mind of a customer. I have often heard people say that they will never buy certain brands again because of a negative assembly experience, even if the delivery and final product is good.

Can you share some examples of bad instructions you have encountered? Is there a particular manufacturer/retailer that is a notorious offender?

Some items such as children’s cabin beds can be made up of modular pieces that cater to customization. Therefore the manufacturer supplies instructions for each module instead of the bed as a whole. These instructions can be very confusing because they look similar, are printed on cheap paper, and written in multiple languages on the StraightAllensame page. It’s often difficult to know where to start and which order the modules need to be built.

Other frustrating experiences include one manufacturer who supplied a straight Allen key (which meant it was impossible to use), instruction manuals that miss out complete sections, and on some occasions no instructions at all!

Can you share examples of good instructions you have encountered. What made them particularly helpful and easy to follow?

I have to say that IKEA has the best instructions of all manufacturers. I think sometimes they get bad press simply because they are the biggest kid in the playground. They’re good because of the combination of instructions and components. It’s clear that they thought about each step in the assembly process, and when a step may have some ambiguity, for example, the correct way around a section of wood should be, or a certain sized dowel should be used, they show a little box with an image clarifying the situation.

John Lewis’s furniture suppliers also have great instructions; examples include clear steps written in one language, which correlate to clearly labeled components. They make things easy – now take piece A which we have clearly marked A, and use dowel size 2 and connect this way up into part B.

What kind of non-paper based instructions have you recently encountered and used. How do they compare to traditional paper instructions?

furniture_3Sometimes if instructions are damaged or missing you can download them and see them on a screen, but this is quite cumbersome during assembly, because you’re about whether you’ve stepped on the iPad or laptop! Paper instructions can be stepped on, have furniture dropped of them, and don’t need to be prodded to stay awake (unlike a sleeping screen). YouTube videos can be good if you like to listen and see, but you still have the problems stated previously and they can’t find parts for you or tell you if you’re using the right part. You also have to keep putting things down to pause, rewind, and fast forward.

Are there any technologies that threaten the assembly service industry, for example, augmented reality?

There will come a time when a technology will render any service redundant. I am now working with a group of people to address the issue of flatpack assembly and how the overall experience can be improved. We are using principles of the design- thinking framework to explore the issue, and have come up with some interesting ideas and findings. At the end of the day, We Love Flatpacks’ mission is to help people stop wasting their precious time and nerves on flatpack furniture – maybe we will be the ones who disrupt the industry by coming up with a better solution!

Do you have any tips for technical writers based on your experiences to improve how instructions are written and delivered?

furniture_2If a technical writer is serious about writing the best instructions possible then they need to understand what people are experiencing when they are building the item that they are writing for. What is a person thinking when they first open the box? What questions are they asking in their minds as they unpack the parts? Is the first step clear? Are there any pain points that are common when people are going through the assembly steps? If you find that certain steps are difficult, then instructions should prepare the user by offering comforting, timely advice.

Remember that people think in different ways, some are visual so need lots of pictures. For folks who find it difficult to think in a linear fashion by following boring black and white clinical instructions, color coding may keep them focused and engaged.

Presentation is also key. Each step needs to be clearly separated and labeled. IKEA does this well, with lots of white space. I think they could improve this further by having one step per page and in one language. I think it’s probably unlikely because it means increased printing costs.

Ultimately, people get frustrated because of uncertainty, if you can remove some of this then you are on to a winner.

What do companies like IKEA think of the assembly service industry? They have their own such services and some private companies closely collaborate with certain retailers/manufacturers.

IKEA provides brilliant furniture that’s just as good if not better than most others, even more expensive brands, especially their new STOCKHOLM range. This allows them to serve two segments of customer. The first want great convenient furniture but have a limited budget, so can build it themselves. The second is the busy, affluent professional or family who still wants convenient great furniture but can afford to pay someone to assemble it. Many people may go elsewhere to buy furniture that is pre-assembled if we did not exist. We help to sell flatpack furniture by improving the overall customer journey. IKEA does have its own assembly company, but often people prefer the more personal, responsive service we provide.

Parting Thoughts

We’re still a long way from robots assembling flatpacks for us, so in the meantime manufacturers, and technical authors, should heed Stuart’s advice and these suggestions:

  • Cooperate with assembly services to identify issues in your instructions content.
  • Monitor people on Twitter and other social media to detect problem steps.
  • Follow good design practices when developing instructions (white space, use of drawings, font choice)
  • Make your instruction content available in several formats (print, online, YouTube, Web site devoted to the product)
  • Embed assistance on the product (QR codes, color coding steps, scannable bar codes, sticker labels)
  • Ensure your content is clear, up-to-date and accurate. Test, test and test again before publishing.
  • Provide moderated spaces where customers can interact (forums, Google groups).
Edward Smyda-Homa

Edward is a Canadian-born Technical Writer based in Galway City, Republic of Ireland. In addition to content quality, he has a special interest in information navigation and retrievability. Among his favourite past times are mountain hiking, film making, and coffee drinking.

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