The good, the bad, and the ugly of assembly instructions

October 14, 2013


I decided to lash out and buy a garden cart. We have an acre of land, at least half of which is garden. When I go into the garden, I’m limited in what I can take with me, so depending on what I’m doing, I may have to go back to the shed to pick up another tool. For example, if I’m spraying weeds, I need two hands (one for the container, the other for the attached spray nozzle), which means I can’t also carry a weed puller, a water bottle, and secateurs to deal with garden issues as I see them, or my phone. I’ve thought of a garden tool belt, but hadn’t got around to investigating them too much as I didn’t want something heavy around my body that might restrict movement or that might be too hot to wear.

So when I was having lunch with friends in town the other day (we all live in semi-rural areas), we got to talking about the versatility of garden carts as you do when one friend lives on a 6-acre property, and the other two on 0.75 acre properties. I decided to get one. The store didn’t have one made up (and I doubt it would’ve fitted in my car anyway as I had a lot of supplies loaded up) so I took the flat pack.

I figured it shouldn’t be too hard to put together, and thought that it might take me an hour to do so if the instructions were clear and everything needed for the assembly was included. But as the flat-pack cart was made in China, I was a bit doubtful about the instructions, based on previous experiences with similar sorts of products.

The good

There were English language instructions inside the box — this was a good start.

And all required nuts, bolts, washers, etc. were supplied. I was impressed with how they did this — it was a cardboard sheet broken up into steps that matched the instructions, and for each step they had supplied all the required parts for that step. So there was little chance you’d use the wrong part if you only broke open the shrink wrap for each step at a time. This was really useful and helpful and I highly recommend it to other manufacturers of flat-pack goods.

On the back of the instructions was a complete list of ALL parts supplied. Each one was named and numbered (though the numbers for some were hard to read — it didn’t matter here as the numbers were sequential down the page) and each had a basic line illustration to show what that part looked like.

One other thing that was really useful was an illustration of what the assembled piece should look like after you’d completed each step. This was really handy to confirm that you’d installed the parts correctly, and would be another feature I’d recommend to manufacturers of flat-pack goods.


Not looking promising — no instructions to be seen yet


Contents of the box


Yay! Instructions and required nuts, bolts, washers, cotter pins etc.


There was a full page of all parts, numbered and named, and with an illustration


All required nuts, bolts etc. were shrink-wrapped into Step 1, 2, 3 etc. bundles. There was no chance of using the wrong part if you followed the steps.

The bad

There was one vital thing that was missing, and that was information about what tools you needed to assemble the cart! You needed a crescent/shifting spanner (or similar) and a ring spanner (or similar) to tighten the nuts (and information on what size you needed). These spanners were essential. You could only finger tighten the nuts a tiny bit — just enough to get the nut on the bolt, but then you had about 2 cm loose and no amount of finger tightening would get that nut tight as there was some sort of rubber (?) seal that prevented it being tightened without a tool to provide some torque. I made several trips to the shed to get various spanners before I found ones that fitted.

The other vital information *was* provided… but not until Step 8 (of 10 steps). And that was that you needed to make sure all nuts/bolts were tightly secured. This should have been mentioned in Step 1 or in the introductory list. I left the nuts/bolts loose initially, thinking that was how it was meant to be as I couldn’t tighten them any more with my fingers. But that obviously wasn’t going to work, so without instructions to do so, I found the spanners and tightened the nuts/bolts anyway… only to find that they told me to do so in Step 8 when the cart was almost fully assembled.

The ugly

The instructions, while pretty clear as far as text went and with very useful ‘after assembly’ illustrations, were just hopeless when it came to identifying the numbered parts for assembly. In the text you see in the image below, the numbered parts are mentioned in the step; those numbers are also reproduced in the illustration as white numbers inside black ovals. But they were IMPOSSIBLE to read! Even with a magnifying glass. The black ovals with their white numbers were tiny and/or fuzzy — it looked like an old faxed copy that had been photocopied several times, with the resolution getting worse each time.

The scanned copy below is exactly how the printed instructions were — there’s no extra fuzziness from the scan.


‘Impossible to read’ illustration with numbered parts


Despite the limitations of the instructions, I eventually put this cart together, though it took me two and a half hours instead of about an hour. Had I been told about the need for spanners and tightening the nuts right from the beginning, and had the illustrations been much clearer than they were, then I expect I would have completed the assembly in less than two hours. And with less frustration.

Ultimately, this experience was let down by the instructions — vital prerequisites weren’t listed, and labelled illustrations weren’t clear enough to read. I think it’s vital for anyone writing instructions to actually use them as a user would, and/or to get someone else (with no experience) to test them. With testing, these basic omissions would have been detected and fixed prior to release. And I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.


Loaded up and ready to work!

BTW, I used this cart on the weekend and it’s very handy!

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