Simone: Martin, you’re our expert for the US. How long have you been working with this topic?
Martin: Since I got here, so for about 10 years.
Simone: Could someone with less experience write a manual that complies with American requirements, or is a company that makes this attempt fairly likely to end up in court?
Martin: It’s possible.
Simone: Are you sure? If you say no, we can probably expand our customer base.
Martin: (laughs) You’re not planning to publish this, right?
Simone: I am.
Martin: Okay …I stand by what I said; it is definitely possible. Some people may need a little assistance ...
Simone: That sounds better.
Martin: ... because the requirements for American manuals do differ from those for German or European ones. But these requirements are easy to implement with the right knowledge.
Simone: So it seems you need to pay attention to a few important points. Which laws or regulations do you need to bear in mind?
Martin: Laws are less relevant. The American justice system is based mainly on case law (i.e. decisions taken by judges in precedence cases, rather than actual laws). So companies cannot consult laws on technical documentation and assume that they are safe as long as they comply with them.
Martin: Some standards are based on judicial decisions, and we think it is very important to comply with those standards. The ANSI-Z535 series is one of these standards. Apply it correctly, and you are a little closer to safety.
Simone: “Apply it correctly” – that sounds like it’s not always easy.
Martin: Well, if you have read a standard or directive before, you will know they leave room for interpretation where you would prefer none. The ANSI series has caused us a fair amount of head-scratching. Ultimately, we need to put ourselves in the user’s place and think what is most suitable for them and their specific situation. When it comes to a court case, the opponent will frequently claim that they would have complied with the instructions if they had been provided in adequate form.
Simone: In adequate form?
Martin: (grins) Yes, adequate. ANSI also tells you how to make safety notes adequate, for example.
Simone: So what about the rumour that a target audience analysis is pointless, because you should always address manuals for the US market to a user who has no prior understanding or knowledge.
Martin: Unfortunately that is not true; a target audience analysis is essential. As in Germany and Europe, you have to make sure not to create a flood of information that puts the reader to sleep and distracts from important content. You cannot explain every single screw to an engineer, but the same explanation might be essential for unskilled workers. The same applies to safety and warning notices: a flood of red and yellow boxes is referred to as “warning pollution”. As a result, the reader may no longer absorb the notices properly.
Simone: Can you tell us how to find the right measure?
Martin: You need common sense and experience, and it is worth taking a look at manuals from competitors within the American market. But don’t just copy stuff; some of the manuals can be pretty bad. They don’t do everything right either.
Simone: Can’t you just take your trusty German manual, have it translated and then modify the safety notes in line with ANSI?
Martin: That is a typical question. Of course people try, but the results are bad, because problems come up in other areas. It’s more about localisation. In the US, you need supplemental directives, which are very important and should be positioned at the start of the manual. You need to convert technical data to US measurements, use different pictograms, ideally use the US Letter format and so on. Another important and tricky matter is that every federal state and every certification body you work with has its own regulations and ideas about the content and appearance of manuals.
Simone: Wait, which regulations? Didn’t you say that this is definitely doable, and that there is not too much to consider?
Martin: I didn’t say there’s not too much to consider. I did say that you need to consider different points. And research into the relevant regulations is definitely in the job description of a technical editor.
Simone: (disbelieving) Research the regulations that apply someplace in California? I’m not sure; that seems pretty demanding to me. I would prefer for insecure entrepreneurs to get in touch with us. Wouldn’t you, Martin?
Martin: (smiles and shakes his head)
Simone: Wouldn’t you?
Martin: Let’s say, I’m available as a contact in case there are questions. Also, we and our partners in the US can provide assistance to anyone who has never written a US manual and wants to do so alone. And of course we can write full manuals for those companies who do not have the time to delve into the requirements or would rather minimise the risk with the help of our experience.
Simone: I think that is a summary we can all live with. Thank you, Martin, for this conversation.