Revised standard will enhance consumer product user information

Products come in many shapes and sizes. They could be systems, services, goods, software or any combination of these, and range from a child’s toy, to complex safety-critical systems in an industrial plant.

Electronic products come with information for use, maintenance and troubleshooting
The best instruction manuals are clearly written and use easy to understand symbols for users

Product manufacturers have market, legal and regulatory obligations to provide different types of product information, which people rely on to use products safely, effectively, and efficiently. However, at some point, most of us experience difficulties in following the instructions to assemble, dissemble or simply use a product, because the information was inadequate or not clear.

Incomplete information risks causing harm or loss to users and potentially leads to claims against product suppliers and brand owners.

Diverse product sectors

In April this year IEC/IEEE 82079-1, Preparation of information for use (instructions for use) of products - Part 1: Principles and general requirements, was adopted in its entirety by the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) for implementation as a national standard by members within six months.

The revision of the standard was led by IEC Technical Committee 3: Documentation, graphical symbols and representations of technical information. IEC worked together with ISO/TC 10/SC 1, which covers basic conventions for technical product documentation, and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Computer Society, Systems and Software Engineering Standards Committee (C/S2ESC). The standard can be applied across product sectors.

“This standard provides the parties responsible for creating product user information with a comprehensive document, which details considerations for the diverse needs of the different user groups. Additionally, it will enable consumers to use products more safely and effectively, thanks to improved information for use”, said Eirik Selvik, Chair of IEC TC 3.

e-tech caught up with Gabriela Fleischer who worked on the standard’s revision to find out more about it. Fleischer is a project manager at the German Institute for Standards (DIN) Consumer Council and member of IEC/TC3 JWG 16.

What does the standard cover?

The standard considers user information to be information required during the lifetime of the product. This includes re-packaging, transport and storage, installation, commissioning, operation, maintenance and repair, replacement of parts, disassembly, recycling, and disposal. This information covers a broad range of information products, for instance instructions (for assembly or operation), instruction handbooks, manuals, product tutorials, information about repairs and troubleshooting.

Consumers access information for use mainly to install and operate products, be aware of safety aspects and troubleshoot, as well as to look-up technical details, such as consumables and spare parts. However, all aspects for the safe, effective, and efficient product use are important and shall be addressed in the information for use.

Who will benefit from this standard?

The standard is a cross-organizational consensus of principles and general requirements for the preparation of high-quality information for use, for all kind of products and target audiences – non-skilled consumers and/or skilled installers.

It emphasizes the need for different parties involved in the presentation of information to apply IEC/IEEE 82079-1 to their products for consumers, so that information needed for the safe, efficient and effective use of the product is presented appropriately.

On the flip side, product suppliers and brand owners who apply this standard to their products benefit from this standard because they will be able to limit the risks related to insufficient information for use.

What needs to be considered to produce good quality effective user information?

The quality of user information is very important. According to different product tests and research, its quality is highly variable from very poor to very good.  

A comprehensive list of consumer problems was identified and analyzed in a study by DIN Consumer Council in 2009 from which criteria for good quality of information for use were derived. Almost 40 points were clarified, for example, quality of translation, legibility, structure of content, layout, level of description, availability of user guides, coherence of content and consistency of terms and format (print or electronic).

What type of products would be covered?

All products covered by the three organizations that developed the standard, whether electrical, non-electrical or software and their user information. From a consumer perspective this includes: household appliances, cosmetics, furniture, toys, audio-visual devices, do-it-yourself products; machinery such as electric power-assisted cycle (EPAC), lawnmowers, power tools (drill, saw, grinder); transport (cars); medical devices (hearing aids, heart pacemakers) and application software (business and web applications).

How should information for use be prepared?

The standard establishes principles for the selection of content, structure, media, and format for information for use, professional competencies and the processes for its design and maintenance. These principles are concerned with the quality of the content, the purpose of the user information and processes for the management of information.

Aspects considered for the purpose of the information include:

  • information for use as part of the product
  • target audience orientation (considering who will use the information)
  • safe use of the product
  • product’s compliance (safety and liability)

The user information must also meet target audience needs for information quality in terms of completeness, minimalism, correctness, conciseness, consistency, comprehensibility, and accessibility.

For example, target audiences’ orientation refers to the people who will consult the user information, to ensure that usable and relevant information is provided, concerning the tasks they will perform and goals to achieve. For the information management process, this includes their skills and the level of detail necessary to describe tasks using language and familiar technical terms, availability of tools, preconditions in the target audience’s working environment, and particular needs of vulnerable consumer target audiences.  

To achieve comprehensible user information, the latter must contain plain text and terminology, comprehensible illustrations, safety signs and graphical symbols, understandable methods of navigation and use of media for the target audience. The standard provides detailed provisions for empirical evaluation of the user information to determine whether it is comprehensible. It further recommends the use of features allowing for easy search, convenient navigation, and unambiguous understanding of its contents.

For consumer products, the information product-related requirements are essential and must be fulfilled in the information of use of the supported product. Furthermore, the evaluation should involve people previously unfamiliar with the use of the supported product and the information for use.

What about overlap between IEC/IEEE 82079-1 and ISO/IEC Guide 37?

ISO/IEC Guide 37 Instructions for use of product by consumers, is an established guide for technical committees preparing standards related to products that require user information. It was also intended for people who draft user information, such as product designers and manufacturers, when it was first published by the ISO/COPOLCO Committee on consumer policy in 1983.

The revision of the IEC/IEEE 82079-1 does not replace the ISO/IEC Guide 37, however, it has integrated all aspects of ISO/IEC Guide 37 relating to the preparation, content, and presentation of information for use of consumer products into the broad scope of products the standard covers. Moreover, the provisions in IEC/IEEE 82079-1 are expressed as requirements, rather than recommendations as in ISO/IEC Guide 37.

Find out more about IEC TC 3.