Assemble, all ye people

You would think their years of experience, the people who write product instructions would stop addressing 12-year-olds who already know how everything works -- they can assemble and disassemble anything by instinct -- and show compassion for us adults who need all the simple, basic directions we can get.

Last summer, I purchased what purported to be an oscillating fan. It was a handsome product. A row of cute buttons, in graduated shades of blue, adorned the white plastic base. I found only one flaw when I got home with it. Unlike the display unit in the store, my fan had no blades and no protective grill. Rather, blades and grill were inside the carton, but might as well have been back in the factory because they were wrapped in a sheet of assembly hieroglyphics.

Rashly, I plunged ahead. I spread the assemble-it-your-self parts about the living room floor in the same sequence as they appeared in the exploded diagram. That was a mistake, because it became increasingly apparent the fan in the diagram was expensive model Z. The fan on my floor was cheap model X. Invariably, that is a bad omen.

Once I realized I had wasted 20 minutes trying to slip Blue Plastic Blades on White Motor Spindle -- backward -- Step A was simple enough. I corrected that error. Then, I discovered the back half of Protective Grill should have been installed first.That little detail, naturally, did not appear in the diagram. I found it two hours later lurking in Step K.

Who, besides an instruction writer, has a mind that moves from K to C to A? Starting over, I worked back to A, then hit the pale blue button marked "low." The fan hummed meditatively. Nothing moved.

That is how I happened to uncover a small-print postcript: "Owners of model X must screw Plastic Drum over Motor Spindle before attaching Blades." What, I beg to inquire, are instructions for model Z (which requires no Plastic Gizmo) doing in a box containing model X (which does)? If you can afford expensive model Z, you don't even need instructions. You can hire a mechanic to assemble it.

By the next afternoon, I was ready again to hit "low." The fan purred like a Rolls-Royce. It did not oscilate, however. It has never oscillated, but as there is no word in the instruction manual about oscillation, I suspect that feature stumped the writer, too.

My real complaint is that these writers never supply the truly essential information up front. Merely an option, but it would have been a thoughtful touch had the fan author advised: "Before hitting royal-blue 'high,' remove all loose objects from the room or, better yet, nail the fan to the floor." The fan shook for a moment like a disco dancer who had stepped on bubble gum before it began gyrating across the room. It did a fandango with the foot of the coffee table, lurched into a gavotte, and would have embraced the televesion set for a gallop into the kitchen i I had not yanked its plug.

The worst offenders may be instruction writers for battery-operated toys. They always assume you have a degree in electrical engineering and understand how a battery works. In this regard, I shall never forget One-Bear Band and Chirping Bird.

One-Bear Band was a cuddly carnivore about nine inches high. According to instructions, after you inserted a battery in each leg, One-Bear would alternately bang the drum and clang the cymbal he was carrying if you depressed his cowboy hat. My ursine percussionist stood there and sulked. I was about to pound that Stetson into a skimmer when a 12-year-old rushed in where instructions failed to tread, mumbled some technical mumbo-jumbo ("Wrong battery , wrong leg"), and One-Bear clang-banged a cadence the United States Marine Corps Band would envy.

With Chirping Bird ("Life Of Our Next Party") there was only one battery and no leg. And worse, no 12-year-old. There was a WARNING . . . printed, of all places, under a wing. "WARNING: battery carrier will jam if not inserted rounded corners up."

Well, that was right. Chirping Bird was the hit of that particular party, as promised, but just when everyone had gone home, C. B. loosened up for a truly operatic warble. Nothing would pry out the battery carrier. After a night of that canary's prodigious serenade, I was not at all surprised when a neighbor telephoned my office next afternoon. "I'm not certain," she said, "but I believe there's a . . . actually, it sounds like a macaw trapped in your house, rather panic-stricken."

Would you care to guess how long it takes a D-cell alkaline to "chirp" itself into quietude?

That's what I mean. Instruction writers never give you the really essential information up front.

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