What scholars of manuals have to say

As we finalise an article about the manual for Horror Film 1 and the potential to use DNA as a storage medium for the manual versions and additional components, we have gone looking for literature about manuals.

I’ve learnt that making procedures is called ‘procedural discourse’. David Farkas writes about this back in 1999. It is about ‘written and spoken discourse that guides people in performing a task-in other words, it is “how to” communication.’ His article aims to set out what makes a procedure a procedure, he sets out the relationships, and persistent logic in making procedures, as he describes it. Here’s a short summary – we’re in the territory of purposeful human behaviour – people wanting to get stuff done, usually around a quite clearly defined goal. He defines getting stuff done more eloquently – he calls it accomplishing tasks and he clarifies that actually means changing things.

He has desired states, prerequisite states, interim states and unwanted states. The domain in which you’re going to use the procedures influences them eg knot tying needs lots of detail because you don’t replicate it elsewhere in life so you don’t have prior knowledge you can use – this is how he puts it: ‘Procedures for tasks in which the interface is confusing including tasks (like tying knots) for which there is no human-engineered interface-will require longer, more explanatory steps to specify actions and more frequent and careful descriptions of interim states to provide feedback. ‘

Procedures are rhetorical – they must fit the user’s background and information need. They must sell themselves and establish credibility and they must sell the domain eg sewing patterns must persuade the user they can achieve this at home. They sell themselves and they dramatize and entertain. An intriguing reference from this article is to a 1993 book published in Canberra, ‘Practical Playscript, writing procedure manuals that people can use’. It looks like manual making really hotted up with the introduction of personal computers. A quick look at Robert Barnett’s book leads me to Leslie Matthies, and it looks like that might be where this all starts, back in 1977 with ‘The new playscript procedure’. These references get really intriguing – I’ll have to save this one for another day: Beverly Sauer’s  “Sense and sensibility in technical documentation: How feminist interpretation strategies can save lives in the nation’s mines.”  in the business and tech comms literature in 1993. There’s another on postmodernism and procedures.

Where did this dive into Farkas begin? With Van Der Meij and Gellavij’s article from 2004 ‘The four components of a procedure’ in the IEEE literature. They’ve been tracking manual development. This study tested 104 manuals. What they add to Farkas’s desired states, prerequisite states, interim states and unwanted states is problem solving.