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What the Customer Wants

In Seattle, Washington, USA, where I live, today is the first really hot day of the summer. It is 94 degrees Fahrenheit (34.4 Celsius). Because of the unusual heat (unusual for Seattle), I wanted to learn how to run my car’s air conditioner most efficiently. So as my husband drove my daughter and me home from an event, I looked in the owner’s manual of the 2004 Mazda for information about the air conditioner.

In the index, I looked for an entry for Air Conditioning–there was no such entry.

I looked for Cooling–no entry.

I tried Cold–nope.

I tried Heating–no again.

My daughter wisely suggested Temperature Control–no entry.

My husband earnestly suggested Environmental Control–no such listing.

Since I could not find anything in all of our guesses, I opted to read the entire index. Because that proved too boring, I flipped through the owner’s manual–and found an entry about the air conditioner.

Do you know what Air Conditioning was called?

Climate Control.

By that time, we were pulling into our driveway at home, but I at least I found the information I was looking for. I can apply it the next time I drive in the heat.

No doubt you understand how my experience applies to writing. It’s a lesson for people who write manuals, procedures, textbooks, and other documents in which people search for information.

The lesson is this: Think about what the reader/customer wants. Think about what the reader/customer is looking for. I did not want to control the entire climate! (So why call it Climate Control?) I wanted to know how to run the air conditioner!

Now that I have written about the bad language choices and indexing in the owner’s manual, I have cooled off. Thanks for reading.


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

One comment on “What the Customer Wants”

  • Has anyone ever found a car owner’s manual that was indexed with the reader in mind? I have not. Usability testing would certainly improve their usefulness, in general.

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