John-Paul Flintoff

Affix panel (b) using screws

Re-writing instruction manuals

Wendy Wakefield stares gravely at a sheet of instructions for assembling a kitchen unit. As she reads, she taps the sheet with a screwdriver for emphasis. “So, ‘C’ goes at the bottom,” she deduces, “and ‘F’ goes above it.”

Wakefield, her cuffs rolled back, sits on tatty carpet tiles in the Bristol offices of Userview, a company which tests manufacturers’ instructions before products appear in the shops. A full-time mother, she’s one of 200 freelance appraisers. If she can’t put the product together with ease, the instructions must be redesigned, using her feedback.

The point is to avoid enraging customers with misleading instructions, since this leads to a hatred of retailers. If you don’t believe this, visit ihateikea.co.uk, a website for bilious consumers. (Userview’s clients include Argos and B&Q, but not Ikea – which recently announced plans to double its UK operations.)

The first product to carry Userview’s accreditation was a pre-wired Security Master intruder alarm system, for which Userview also designed the packaging. Just 0.75 per cent of the alarms sold at B&Q were subsequently returned. The usual figure is ten times as high.

Having unpacked the oven-housing, Wakefield immediately starts writing notes. Instructions for a similar – but crucially different – unit have been printed on the back of the sheet, so she must be careful not to mix them up. Too many screws have been provided, and too few pegs. The white, laminated chipboard has holes punched in it that do not appear on the diagram. It’s unclear which tool should be used at key moments. And after half an hour it becomes apparent that more than one pair of hands is needed. Setting aside journalistic neutrality, the Financial Times steps in.

Over recent months, Wakefield has tackled a microwave oven, a hair drier and a shower enclosure. (“I had to ask for help on that one.”) Other appraisers have examined a gas barbeque, curtain rails, a cement mixer, a children’s climbing frame, a Christmas tree stand, loft ladders and a toilet waste pump.

After an hour-and-a-half, the unit is almost complete. Paul Filer, Userview’s founder, pops in and asks: “Another difficult one?”

“Not bad,” says Wakefield. She stands up and examines her work from all sides. “I could live with that.” Then, taking up her notes, she starts writing her report.

383 words. © FT Magazine

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