CSIRO research reduces manual labour

CSIRO research reduces manual labour

The "if all else fails, read the manual" adage seldom rings true, as instructions often confuse more people than they help, according to Dr. Cecile Paris of the CSIRO.

"One reason confusion may occur is that manuals are often written some time after the product, whether it is a machine, a tool or a piece of software, has been finished," she said.

The CSIRO are helping to alleviate the headaches associated with understanding an instruction manual. Researchers are improving the way manuals are produced by developing tools to allow them to be created at the same time as the software or product they refer to.

The process of product documentation has traditionally been separate from the creation of the product, and this seems to be the crux of the problem. The writer typically works out how to use various functions of the product, and then lists these in clear, unambiguous language. However, it is believed that greater consistency can be achieved if the manual is developed as an integrated part of product creation, as the content of the manual will actually be based on the functionality of the product.

To bolster this idea, the CSIRO has been working in conjunction with the US Office of Naval Research (ONR).

"The ONR deals with massive amounts of documentation on a huge number of incredibly complex hardware and software systems," said Dr Paris.

"This means that just making sure manuals keep up with specification and functionality changes is a massive task."

The CSIRO has developed tools so that they can be broken down into their component steps and analysed. The software can capture task models from specifications, interaction diagrams, text based scenarios and even live user situations.

"As a user interacts with a piece of software, our tools can be recording all the steps they take," says Dr Paris.

"By capturing every action and response, we can ensure that instructions do not leave out essential steps or assume knowledge on the part of the user."

Product quality can be enhanced via task modeling at the software development phase. For example, analysing the results of task modeling may reveal that a particular task, say sorting a list, can be done in less steps than originally conceived. This makes life easier for programmers, designers and, most importantly, users.

The next key aspect of the system is to create a comprehensible text from the task models. Dr. Paris claims that the CSIRO's approach has been to make instructional text as easy to read as text written by a professional writer, through the generation of instruction sets. However, the intention is not to outmode writers. The instructional sets will hopefully provide technical writers with time to concentrate on what Dr. Paris describes as "more challenging requirements such as product features, context and applications."

Another positive outcome of the research will be increased ease in manual updates. Previously, entire sections of a manual would need to be re-written; with the advent of the CSIRO's new tools, a slight adjustment of the task model is all that will be required.

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