Clear words



Wordless instructions. This suggestion comes up almost immediately as the best way to deliver instructions to the developing world. Whether it be an answer to tackling the behemoth that is multi-lingual translation or addressing mass illiteracy, this is the answer that keeps coming up. It is easy to see why, it sidesteps the issues of translation and illiteracy.

This approach was undertaken by two Swedish students in a remarkable a project the called Made in Kenya that tries to engage with the informal manufacturing industry and uses IKEA inspired styling

A great effort though I remain dubious of a totally word free approach. I find it hard to believe that all issues of clarity and interpretation can be designed out by better diagrams. Looking at the images I am hesitant to attempt building it. Given a choice between a Haynes Manual style instructions or IKEA style I would take the former, especially for complex builds.

It is hoped that eventually illiteracy is no longer prevalent. Would creating a system that allows continued illiteracy be detrimental on this front? Or does delaying the adoption of technology because it exists behind a word wall more detrimental to overall welfare?

Then what is to be done? My current train of thought is to pursue visual clarity but to not see the whole weight of knowledge transfer placed upon these diagrams. The pictures are a subset of the whole. It would be more dangerous to leave vital safe information in an ambiguous medium. I suggest placing our faith in people once again. My balance between an ideal set up and what is realistic sees the words as a vital, but only as a one time measure.  If the text contain sufficient information to instruct construction independent of a consultant, an illiterate manufacturer and a literate person can collaborate in learning how to build the invention. In subsequent builds the pictures can suffice as a guide and a reminder after the process is initially learned.

Who is this literate person? Who would give up so much time? Perhaps the local NGO contact. Perhaps the local teacher, or if I were to take an optimistic view I could imagine teachers teaching children how to read instructions to their parents.

An alternative is a mobile phone approach, a reading service. This could take a multitude of approaches. Pre-Recorded instructions played back over the telephone. Specialised readers who bring up the relevant document on the internet and read it through with the manufacturer.

This still leaves us mired with the problems of translation. Perhaps the teachers will be well versed enough with English to provide end point translation on the fly at least until formal translations can be provided. Perhaps they can actively engage with localisation efforts. With free (in the Stalllman sense) documentation, bottom up translation can become the norm.

None of these are perfect solutions but perfect wordless instructions for manufacture is a pipe dream. It may work for simple devices and pre-manufactured flat-pack items but it will not work for far too many technologies to consider a serious solution. The perfect is the enemy of the good and as far as I can figure this hashed approach is a far more viable solution.

As always your thoughts are welcome.

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