Recalling all recalls

“Oh, what a feeling to drive Toyota!”

This catchy jingle from a few years ago rings ironically in my ears. With all the current recalls from Toyota, this jingle needs a rewrite:

“Oh, what a feeling – to drive Toyota – into a brick wall…”

Last year, I came dangerously close to owning a dangerous Toyota. The dealer and I had agreed on a price for a new Camry. However, he was unable to actually obtain the car – apparently they had sold out, and only next year’s model was available.

I never quite understood how next year’s model could be available in the spring of the previous year. It’s as though they’ve sent a car from the future back in time eight months to our present. Back to the future, baby.

In any case, they say “be careful what you wish for”, and am I glad my wish for a new Camry never materialized. I bought a used Accord instead for about half the price. It also has the added feature of an accelerator pedal that actually springs back up when you take your foot off it.

Usability – A Sticky Situation

To be fair to Toyota, this is also a usability issue. Don’t drivers know that if the accelerator pedal sticks, they can:

1. Press the brake pedal
2. Turn off the engine?

This may not stop the car immediately, but it sure beats the status quo. Toyota should include these handy tips in their car manuals.

Total Doc Recall

You don’t often hear about companies issuing a “documentation recall”. It’s a mathematical fact that many documents have errors or omissions, and could be improved. Even though documents are, unlike cars, quite easy to update, most companies don’t bother.

The problem is that documentation is traditionally packaged with the product and never (or rarely) updated. This is especially true of PDF files included with a product. They’re written once and may only be updated when a new version of the product is released. All of the changes and improvements that were made in later PDFs, changes that could apply to earlier versions, are rarely made to these earlier versions, because it’s simply too much work to retroactively update all the documentation.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The solution is to recognize that documentation exists in a very different way than a physical thing like a car. Its ethereal, non-physical state liberates it and exempts it from the pitfalls of tedious physical recalls.

All information can and should be stored as reusable elements, and then regularly and automatically published as online documents. Any part of a document that applies to more than one version of a guide is stored as a single documentation element. When this element is changed, all the versions of the relevant guides are also changed, and the users will see these changes when they view the manuals online.

The concept of a “recall”, therefore, simply doesn’t exist in this documentation scenario, because the product is never finished.

The president of Toyota recently apologized for all his company’s troubles. Maintaining an online content management system means never having to say you’re sorry.