More than just a thingy for the thingies

Technical writing and finding the right words.

More than just a thingy for the thingies

With a broad grin and the words “Have fun!”, my project leader drops a big box on my desk today. And the delivery of a prototype is always fun. The office becomes a test rig, and we can examine the device from all sides, or even take it apart, while we are writing.

In this case I have the honour of working with an air humidifier. First I take stock and create a parts list. This provides me with an overview of the device and also a terminology list that I can use later on. So I get started. Control panel, carrying handles, air intake, air outlet ...

And then I face my first challenge: The humidifier is delivered with an external pump and two hoses. If you want to use the pump, you have to use one hose. If you do not want to use the pump, you need the other hose. In case the user does not read the entire operating manual, this difference must be made clear by the designations of the hoses. So “thingy for the thingies” is not enough.

My first attempt: “Condensation discharge for pump operation” and “condensation discharge for discharge without a pump”. As soon as it is written down, I can tell it is much too complicated and technical. The user group for air humidifiers is much too varied for even a vague statement on prior technological knowledge among users. The whole situation is so typical, that Loriot, a German comedian, even wrote a sketch about it.

Components need simple and generally comprehensible designations. Second attempt: “Water hose for pump operation” and “water hose for discharge without a pump”. These terms are simpler, but they are still too long. And the important difference comes right at the end. After 10 characters, the reader’s attention starts to fade rapidly, and the eye begins to “wander”. The reader is less likely to absorb the information. So the most important point must appear in the first five characters.

At this point, the fact that water flows out of an air humidifier is fairly trivial and even superfluous. My third attempt: “thick hose” and “thin hose”. Short, simple, and the difference between the hoses is emphasised in the first few characters. However, the thickness of the hose says little about its function, so it is not particularly helpful. And the designations are so banal that they could feature in an example instruction template.

In my fourth attempt, I start with the difference in function and conclude with a generally comprehensible part name: “pump hose” and “discharge hose”. These terms indicate the difference between the two hoses in terms of purpose. Armed with this preliminary information, the user can read up on the details in a later section of the operating manual. And now the terminology is clear, so I can take care of that as well.

Stefanie Langmann
Blog post Stefanie Langmann
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