Some suggestions on improving the assembly instructions for your children’s play furniture

Some suggestions for those companies which produce children's play furniture:

  1. If a part is 99.9% symmetric, please call out the other 0.1%. Otherwise, the person doing the assembling will waste five minutes trying to get it to fit before realizing, "Oh, I have to turn it the other way."
  2. Do not refer to the same part by multiple names. Try to stick to the name as it appears in the parts list. Otherwise, the person doing the assembling will not know which one is the M5 × 30mm screw.
  3. Corollary: If you refer to a part, please make sure it appears in the parts list.
  4. Do not omit steps on the assumption that the person doing the assembling has read ahead. "Step 5: Insert X into Y. Step 6: Close snaps around the sides of Y." Invisible step 4.5: "Open the snaps around the sides of Y so that X will fit."
  5. Take into account that the person doing the assembling is most likely being pestered by at least one excited kid during the assembly process. And is probably tired.
Comments (19)
  1. laonianren says:

    Step 4 is reminiscent of the (probably apocryphal) army manual:

    "PRESS BUTTON B" … (turns page) … " UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES".

  2. Sunil Joshi says:

    Raymond Chen doesn't write children's furniture manuals but if he did they would be best children's furniture manuals in the world…

    [To paraphrase a Carlsberg Advert]

  3. Sean says:

    How else could you refer to an M5x30mm screw? It is what it is :s

  4. T.C. says:

    2, 4 and 5 are great tips for writing design and functional specs as well – just replace "excited kid" with manager and/or customer.

  5. Ben says:

    Ikea tends to produce pretty good instructions using no written language at all.

  6. Erzengel says:


    Kind of like in Toy Story 3. Insert paperclip into hole under switch. "OK, now what?" Caution, do not hold button for more than 5 seconds. (Buzz resets to Spanish) "Not my fault!"

  7. configurator says:

    This demonstrates one of the reasons I like IKEA.

    1. They always point out the difference in a fairly-obvious manner.

    2. The almost never use text so there's no danger of using confusing names.

    4. The drawings make it very clear what the state of parts should be before and after each step.

    However, having great instructions is not all that matters. Since this isn't an IKEA review I'll stop here and not bore you with irrelevance.

    About step 5, how do you take that into account when writing instruction manuals?

    [For item #5, it means keep each step simple with clear start end points, and don't require three hands or careful balancing. Bad: "Step 5: While holding the W open, frob the X with one hand while gnorfing the Y with the other, frist the Z and Q, and attach the result to the X." Better: "5: Open the W (design so that W stays open by itself). 6: Pre-gnorf the Y. 7: Frob the X to the Y. 8: Gnorf the Y. 9: Close the W. 10: Frist the Z and Q. 11: Attach the Z/Q piece to the X." -Raymond]
  8. Falcon says:

    It looks like these furniture *assembly instructions* are written by *buggy compilers*.

  9. Mike says:

    The best assembly instructions I've ever seen are for Lego kits.  My son was able to put together some of those complicated Star Wars models by himself when he was 6.

  10. Joe says:

    Lego kits usually do have great instructions, though I remember one complex kit which was obviously missing a step. Unfortunately, it was a very complex step and my son and I spent some time scratching our heads trying to figure it out.

  11. Justin G says:

    Sorry that looks super ugly, fell free to delete/fix :(

  12. Judago says:

    I got caught out by picture instructions :( Practically destroyed a chest of draws by hammering one of the dowels into a screw hole.

           /        /
           *      /   [Top panel]
       /        /
             *  /
              /  [Not shown: two slightly smaller screw holes]

    There needs to be an industry standard :(.

  13. Patches says:

    With regards to #5:  they should also include extra parts.  I helped my brother-in-law assemble a swing set and I spent most of the time preventing my three year-old nephew from running off with parts or tools, attempting to attach parts out of sequence, and attempting to remove previously attached parts.  He was very upset that we didn't want his "help".

  14. Puckdropper says:

    Extra parts can be confusing as well.  How many extras should you have when you get done?

    I am a big fan of the method of packaging hardware in a cardboard backed "bubble" container.  It makes identifying the parts easy, and keeps them from running off.  (With or without helpful kids.) :-)

  15. mike says:

    Crappy documentation is a result of treating the docs — including the testing and editing of docs — as something that you can cheap out on, and that "users will figure it out." It's very common:…/DisplayBlog.aspx

  16. Johannes says:

    Well, back to IKEA once more … while they *usually* point out distinguishing features of parts it's not always so. Sometimes the furniture has identical parts except for the varnished outer surface – which is nowhere mentioned. You essentially have to figure out which might be a part that's not the bottom or back and would need the varnished side.

    That and the only nearly identical two dozen wood pieces once drove me nuts. They give their screws and other small parts numbers, why not the wood pieces too and just print them somewhere on the inside of them?

  17. Neil says:

    Last year, I had a Melissa and Doug kitchen to assemble.  It was without a doubt the best assembly experience I've ever had – better than Ikea. Color coded, screws of different sizes that physically could not fit in the wrong holes. I have asked Mrs. Claus to strongly consider Melissa and Doug items solely for the ease of assembly.

  18. DWalker says:

    I know how to frob, but gnorf?  That's a new instruction to me.  How do you pre-gnorf?

    I think I'll start a company to produce frobbers; they seem to be required everywhere.

  19. Cheong says:

    Oh toys…

    I was assembling the a modeling kit from Disney last week for my cousin. On the box it seems the joints are movable, but in fact there's some locking mechanism inside the joint, so before you assemble, you must figure out what pose you want the model to be.

    I've had a hard time explaining to her why the joints can't move.

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