Oh dear! Baby gear! Why are the manuals so unclear?

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Since becoming a father a few months ago, I’ve held a grudge against something tiny, seemingly inconsequential, and often discarded: instruction manuals. Parenting requires many devices to maintain a child’s health and well-being. These devices require you to puzzle over booklets, decode inscrutable pictograms, and wonder whether warnings can be safely ignored or whether they are actually revealing a danger.

To give you one example, my daughter, typically a cooing little marsupial, quickly discovered the superpower of childhood: Babies emerge from the womb with strong claw-like nails. She wasn’t afraid to use them, against her parents or herself. So we bought a pistachio green portable manicure and pedicure set.

That was the easy part. The difficulty arose when we consulted the manual, a two-page document that fits in the palm of your hand.

The wand-shaped tool is topped with a rotating disc. Apparently, you can adjust the speed of its rotation using a slider button on the wand. But the product manual offered confusing advice: “Please do not use round center position grinding,” it said. Instead, “Please use the outer circle position to rectify.” It also proclaimed: “Stay away from children.” In fine print, the manual revealed that the potential combination of children and the device’s smaller parts were cause for concern.

One would hope for more clarity on an accessory that could inadvertently cause pain.

Later, I noticed another warning: “If you do not use this product for a long time, remove the battery.” Was it dangerous? Or simply an unclear and useless but harmless warning? We didn’t know what to do with this information.

Now we notice shoddy instructions everywhere.

A baby carrier insert told us to use the product for babies with “adequate” head, neck, and trunk control—a vague phrase. (The manufacturer declined to comment.)

Another manual, this one online and for a car seat—a device that is supposed to protect your child—informed readers in words and pictures that a baby model was “correctly positioned” relative to the top of the headrest “frame” when more than an inch from the top. A few pixels away, the same model, more droopy, was considered incorrectly positioned: “The headrest should not be more than 1” from the top of the head”, he said, in tension with the previous instructions. What was it, more than an inch or not? So we played around and hoped for the best.

I recognize this sounds like new parent paranoia. But we are not fully Crazy: Manuals are important, and manuals for baby products “are notoriously difficult to write,” Paul Ballard, managing director of 3di Information Solutions, a technical writing company, told me.

Deborah Girasek, professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, told me that for decades, for both the young and middle-aged, unintentional injuries have been the leading cause of death. These are drownings, fires, suffocation, car accidents. USU is a federal service academy that trains medical students destined for the military or other parts of the government.

Some of these deaths are caused by a lack of effective communication – that is, a lack of education on how to avoid injuries.

And these problems extend from cheap devices to the most sophisticated research and development products.

It’s a gap that has led several regulatory agencies charged with keeping Americans healthy, including the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to urge companies to provide more helpful instructions.

By some lights, they were successful. NHTSA, for example, has employees who actually read manuals. The agency says about three-quarters of car seat manuals rate four or five stars out of five, up from 38% in 2008. Once again, our car seats have a five-star rating. But it turns out that the agency does not evaluate online material.

Manuals for medical products sometimes don’t work very well either. Raj Ratwani, director of the Human Factors program at MedStar Health, told me that for a class he teaches to nurses and doctors, he encouraged students to evaluate Covid-19 testing instructions. The results were bad. One time, the instructions detailed two cotton swabs. The kit only had one.

The technical writers I spoke to identified this type of error as a symptom of cost savings. Perhaps a company creates a manual intended to cover a range of products. Perhaps I will prepare the manual at the last moment. Perhaps this delegates the task to marketers, who don’t necessarily think about how manuals need to evolve along with products.

For some of these cost-cutting tactics, “the motivation to do it can be cynical,” Ballard said.

Who knows.

Some corners of the technical writing world are dark. People fear that their jobs are not safe, that they will be replaced by someone abroad or by artificial intelligence. In fact, several people I spoke to said they had heard of generative AI experiments in this area.

Even before AI took effect, the job market was already weighing down. According to the federal government, the number of technical writers fell by a third from 2001, its recent peak, until 2023.

One solution for people like us – frustrated by inscrutable instructions – is to turn to another unfamiliar world: social media. YouTube, for example, has helped us discover many of the baby gadgets we have purchased. But these videos are also part of the Wild West, where creators offer helpful tips about baby products and then direct us to their other productions (read: ads) touting things like weight-loss services. Everyone needs to earn a living, of course; but I’d rather they didn’t make money off viewers’ postpartum anxiety.

This reminds me of an old insight that has become a cliché of the digital age: information wants to be free. Everyone forgets the second half: information also wants to be expensive. It is cheap to share information once it is produced, but producing that information is expensive – and a process that cannot be easily or cheaply replaced. Someone must pay. Instruction manuals are just another example.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of the primary operating programs of KFF – an independent source of health policy research, surveys and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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