The definitive guide to writing instructions for use
Published: October 2020
In 2012, ISO and IEC got together to provide common minimum requirements for the preparation, structuring, content and presentation of product instructions. The standard has now been updated, and this blog post outlines why and what’s new.
Only the world’s simplest, most hazard-free and most intuitive products can be used efficiently, effectively and safely without some sort of guidance or instruction from the manufacturer. Think for instance of a book or a feather duster.
Every other product will likely benefit from some clear product information. Though of course writing clear instructions is easier said than done. In recognition of that simple truth, ISO and IEC got together in 2012 to produce a comprehensive international standard on user instructions. In 2020 it has been updated and published as BS EN IEC/IEEE 82079-1:2020 Preparation of information for use (instructions for use) of products. Principles and general requirements.
What’s in the standard?
BS EN IEC/IEEE 82079-1:2020 is a comprehensive and generic guide for use by anyone who’s tasked with preparing user instructions, technical manuals, or any other documentation for any product, equipment or software. It might also be used by product enforcement agencies. The instructions are for any user, technical or not.
The standard starts from the philosophy that information for use is actually a part of the product that it supports. In the absence of human instruction, moreover, the information provided on how to use products safety, effectively and efficiently is something that people depend on. Confusing information and inadequate instructions need to be avoided. In the least-worst-cases, poor instructions can be a major cause of frustration; in worst-case scenarios they can risk harm or loss, and lead to prosecution or liability claims against the product supplier or manufacturer.
The standard then states that information for use consists of three information types: conceptual, instructional and reference. Conceptual information is something that product users need to understand: for instance a functional description or a safety notice. Instructional information needs to be considered or followed: so that could include procedures like information for assembly or warning messages. Reference information is to be consulted when required: so might include troubleshooting information, or a maintenance schedule.
The standard also considers the options for how information is to be delivered: in one “hit”, e.g. a single product manual; or across several types of information product: e.g. labelling on the product itself, or on the packaging, via an accompanying booklet, or in a video.
Why the update?
A review of the standard suggested areas for improvement, which has broadly meant that some content has been consolidated, while in other areas it’s been expanded. The structure has been rearranged in order to facilitate application of the standard and to make it easier to find information. Where possible, the language has been simplified. The professional competencies needed for the preparation of information for use are also addressed more comprehensively.
It’s also the case that time and technology have moved on. Particularly thanks to the participation of the IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in this revision, the content has been thoroughly updated to cover user information in electronic formats including downloads and instructions for using software products. Also, for the first time, the revised standard introduces additional basic requirements for the presentation and evaluation of instructions for products intended for self-assembly by consumers, or by professionals who’re not in receipt of product-specific training.
This revision also pays more attention to providing alternative access options for users with particular needs, and finally, an informative annex providing guidance for conformity assessments is introduced. This is an important point because it means that expectations of conformity with this standard could well start to feature in commercial contracts and safety compliance assessments in future.