Memorable Product Documentation: Following DYI Instructions with Mom

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

I was home from college on break when my mother brought home a huge box. Our dog had gnawed the legs of our sofa until they looked like they were covered with tree bark, so inside the box was a small loveseat. Some assembly was required.  After we opened the box and compared the paper parts list to the actual parts in the box, we noticed that one item on the parts list was missing–the “Allen wrench”.  

We had no idea what an Allen wrench was, and there were no pictures of anything in the instructions. And there was no Google or Alexa to ask. In fact, there was no internet. I don’t mean that our internet was down.  I mean that there was no such thing as the internet back then. So, we made do without the Allen wrench, but putting the screws in was particularly difficult without it. We used a regular screwdriver as best as we could.

As we stood patting ourselves on the back and admiring our handiwork, we saw a mysterious L-shaped piece of metal inside the plastic parts bag.  We worried that we had missed a step in the instructions–surely that L must go somewhere in the loveseat.  How crucial was that L ? Would our first guest sit on the loveseat and come crashing down to the floor because we couldn’t figure out where the mystery L belonged in the loveseat construction?

We re-read the instructions, but there was no mention of an L.

We sat on the loveseat ever so gingerly, trying not to put too much weight on it.  After seeing that the thing was not going to crash down, we felt very proud of ourselves again.  We felt proud, that is, until someone came into the room, picked up the L-shaped piece of metal, and said, “Hey, what is this Allen* wrench doing here?”

My mom and I laughed and laughed.  In fact, that is one of my favorite memories of my mom. But really, shouldn’t it be called a Larry wrench or something?

Because all good tech writers know the value of research, I went to Wikipedia for an informative article on the Allen wrench:

“A hex key or Allen key is a simple tool used to drive bolts and screws with hexagonal sockets in their heads.

“The tool is usually formed of a single piece of hexagonal rod of hard steel, with blunt ends that are meant to fit snugly into the screw’s socket, bent in an “L” shape with unequal arms. The tool is usually held and twisted by the long arm, creating a large torque at the tip of the short arm. Reversing the tool lets the long arm reach screws in hard-to-reach places.

“In 1909–1910, William G. Allen too patented a method of cold-forming screw heads around a hexagonal die (U.S. Patent 960,244). Published advertisements for the “Allen safety set screw” by the Allen Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, exist from 1910. Although it is unlikely that Allen was the first person to think of a hex socket drive, his patent for a manufacturing method and his realized product appear to be the first.”

Erika Konrad, Ph.D., teaches in the Professional Writing program online through Northern Arizona University. One thing students like about this program is its flexibility:  complete an MA or a short Graduate Certificate. In addition to required coursework, Master’s degree students choose 7 electives in professional writing and in a wide variety of other areas such as education, communication, literature, creative writing, travel writing, and memoir. Her newest class, Technical Documentation, brings undergraduates and graduate students together.  Everyone learns best practices for content such as product documentation, and graduate students get experience managing teams of writers.

Subscribe to TechWhirl via Email