Achieve optimum text intelligibility in technical writing

Published: 2020-02-19 Updated: 2022-08-23
Subject: Content creation Quality control

Imagine that your company produces fan heaters. Winter is slowly approaching and you know that the coming months will be the most lucrative for your company’s products. You receive feedback from three retailers about complaints from end customers in just one day, which concern the commissioning of the fan heater as well as how to respond to fault messages during operation. The reason: the operating instructions. They are not complete nor are they easy to understand, so that the error messages displayed cannot be rectified. And, that’s to say nothing of avoiding risks during commissioning.

Achieve optimum text intelligibility in technical writing

Had enough of difficult-to-understand operating instructions and manuals?

What we have described here is the absolute worst-case scenario. Fan heaters are not a particularly complex technical product, and could not be said to need page-long descriptions for commissioning, servicing, maintenance or spare parts management. But imagine your product is an automation component for a production line or a compact digital camera. As a technical writer, not only do you have to remember all the new rules and legal regulations on consumer safety, environmental protection etc., but you must also ensure that all the information and explanations in your manuals are crystal clear and can be understood by the end user. By law, an incomplete user manual constitutes a quality defect, which could result in the demand for rectification or replacement, withdrawal from the purchasing contract or a reduction in the purchase price. This, in turn, may mean higher service and support costs, in addition to lost revenue from dissatisfied customers. Trouble you, as a technical writer, want to avoid.

Essential in technical documentation: comprehensible texts

But what if time is short, as is often the case? You and your editorial team will be occupied writing not just one, but several operating instructions or maintenance documents in a day, as well as drafting service or supplier documentation, and compiling complex manuals or text for packaging. All of this has to be done to tight deadlines, because the lifecycles of products are getting shorter and shorter, or increasing customisation means versions of manuals have to be created at short notice. You’re always asking yourself: how can I ensure maximum text intelligibility across all text versions, while keeping output high? We have a few good tips for you.

Optimum output with the Hamburg comprehensibility concept

Operating instructions are not novels and it is best to keep things short and sweet: that much is clear. However, in the Hamburg comprehensibility concept it is clear there is much more to creating a comprehensible text. It was developed back in 1973 by Inghard Langer, Friedemann Schulz von Thun and Reinhard Wechter. Underpinned by academic research, the model assumes that any complex matter can be explained in a comprehensible manner – and this is predominantly down to the way in which the text is formulated. The Hamburg comprehensibility concept lets you evaluate your entire technical document based on defined individual criteria one step at a time so as to achieve optimal text intelligibility.

Optimal output with the Hamburg comprehensibility concept

It is one thing that brevity is the spice of life and that operating manuals are not novels. But the Hamburg concept of comprehensibility knows that a comprehensible text needs a lot more. It was developed as early as 1973 by Inghard Langer, Friedemann Schulz von Thun and Reinhard Tausch. The model is scientifically based on the assumption that any subject, no matter how complex, can be explained in a comprehensible way - the most important thing is the way it is formulated. With the Hamburg comprehensibility concept, you can evaluate your entire technical documentation on the basis of defined individual criteria and thus approach optimal text comprehensibility step by step.

Based on four characteristics and five evaluation levels on a scale of ++ to – – (also: +2 to -2), the operating instructions, maintenance information or manual are subjected to a text check. You can check the intelligibility of your text using the following four characteristics:

  • Simplicity: Check if sentences are too long – no more than 9 to 13 words – and if the text contains foreign words that need to be explained. The text is written clearly and precisely.
  • Structure and organisation: This has to do with the logical organisation of content and having a clear structure, e.g. through formatting, structuring, numbering, etc. which help to hold the reader’s attention.
  • Brevity and conciseness: A must in technical documentation. Keep in mind that only what is necessary should be described, but do not be over-concise. If the text is too short, understanding may be affected.
  • Extras to add interest: Make the technical documentation for your product appealing using graphics, illustrations or examples. Ensure that you address the reader, user, operator or installer personally.

If you are not sure whether all these criteria have been satisfied, simply do a cross-check. If the text slips into the minus area following critical evaluation of one or more of these criteria (see figure above), it should be revised.

For the sake of completeness, we would also like to point to the Karlsruhe comprehensibility concept by Susanne Göpferich, which later emerged as the Hamburg model and includes additional features such as correctness, perceptibility, communication aspects, etc. However, since we view the Karlsruhe concept as a more in-depth addition to the Hamburg model, we will not go into this in more detail at this point.

“Know your user and you will produce successful texts”

We would also like to mention that the Hamburg comprehensibility concept has occasionally received criticism concerning the target group for which the operating instructions, manual, etc. is intended. The complaint is that the concept does not take sufficient account of the reader’s existing knowledge. Our response to this is that we believe a technical writer always addresses the user when creating documentation, be it for a power station or a hairdryer. Therefore, from our point of view, this is of negligible significance in technical writing. By contrast, if you have the target group’s existing knowledge firmly in focus, the model provides sound guidance for creating easy-to-understand texts.

Put to the test: text intelligibility on the web

Reading text on a screen is 25 percent slower than reading printed text, and text is often skimmed over with 50 percent of the information shown not being absorbed. This may be different for product information and instructions in the technical sector. However, the following still applies here: those who fail to express concepts clearly and precisely, produce reams and reams of text littered with foreign words and abbreviations are doing their product a disservice. A clear description with clearly formulated content that can be delivered to any mobile device at any time using your component content management system like SCHEMA ST4 – to meet the need for end-to-end digital accessibility – will make you very popular among installers, service staff and end customers.

Combined team knowledge and clear texts – saving you time and money in technical writing

By using a tried-and-tested intelligibility concept such as the Hamburg model to underpin your day-to-day work in the technical writing team, you can ensure all texts satisfy a similar standard of intelligibility. In addition to improved quality, this concept also makes the translation task easier: once you have defined frequently recurring formulations in your products, you simply save them as text modules (modules, topics, etc.) in your component content management system. This makes them available to every employee* in your team with access rights – saving time and stress, as staff do not get bogged down repeatedly rephrasing the same content. One approach we strongly recommend is to adhere to the text intelligibility criteria not just as a benchmark, but also as specifications in an editorial guide that can be browsed by the entire team using a CMS.