20 funniest (and most confusing) examples of everyday documentation
Catherine Heath | January 23, 2020
An obvious example of documentation is a user manual that you whip out when a piece of expensive hardware stops working. But documentation affects our lives constantly, and we encounter many more instances of documentation in the form of instructions, maps, signs, labels, and warnings. Documentation helps us understand what to do, how to do it, and where to go next.
Unfortunately, important instructions are often confusing, incomplete, incomprehensible, or just plain hilarious. They may be presented in a confusing way, written poorly, missing parts, or be overly bureaucratic.
Sometimes, poor documentation is a minor amusement, such as a perplexing instruction manual for a piece of furniture. Other times, insufficient documentation can actually be dangerous, such as the labels on important medications, or road signs. Mostly though, poor documentation is relatively harmless, and frustrating more than anything.
We’ll now take a look at some of the funniest and/or most confusing examples of real-life documentation.
1. Take this medicine one, two, three or four times
Our first example is a thoroughly confusing medicine label: “Every night before food once daily to be taken four times a day three times a day every three times daily take one take two take three one or two.” These instructions leave a lot to be desired.
The person is left perplexed about their dosage. Do I take one tablet? Or three? How many times a day do I take this medication? To add insult to injury, the label also contains a warning to “follow the printed instructions you have been given with this medicine.” What happens when the instructions make no sense?
It’s unfortunate that medication labels are often confusing, since they might have been generated by a computer, an employee who is strapped for time, or a combination of both. The problem is, medications can be potent, while misuse can render them ineffective or even harmful.
In this case, the prescription is for a contraceptive, so hopefully this patient was able to obtain clearer instructions from their pharmacist.
2. Inception IKEA instructions
This person has posted their funny IKEA manual on Reddit.
At first glance, it seems like a simple enough diagram. But look closer… The image is more like an optical illusion than a genuinely useful instruction. Are there three prongs on the right, or two? What’s up with the nut on the left – is it taking us into another dimension? Same goes for the rectangular object in the middle. It’s enough to make your head pound.
We don’t want to be unfair. IKEA sells thousands of products that all require self-assembly, so it’s understandable that occasionally one of their manuals is a bit less than helpful. On the other hand, buying flat-packed furniture to “do it yourself” is meant to be cheaper, but the potential for ending up enraged and frustrated may leave us thinking twice.
3. IKEA number two
Here’s another example of a super confusing IKEA manual, this time for the Pax Lyngdal sliding door.
Can you make out what to do with this item based on these two diagrams? The only difference between the first and the second seems to be an arrow, first pointing left and then pointing right. We’d forgive you if you gave up and sent it back.
The diagram suffers from an excess of detail. We don’t know what the individual illustrations represent (probably something to do with the sliding door), or the reason for why we need to turn what looks like a lever. There seem to be many more steps required for this assembly than the two-step process implied in the diagram.
Fine, maybe we’ll just pay someone to do it!
4. Is this supposed to be a prescription?
Another Reddit poster shows off his crazy medication instructions.
How can anyone be expected to read through this much information without falling asleep? This could be an example of bureaucracy gone crazy.
Hopefully this time the madness can be explained away. Maybe the instructions have been translated into several different languages, but surely that wouldn’t account for this much paper.
5. 1962 Honda motorcycle instructions – beware the skid demon
Sometimes, translations end up being more like poetry than documentation. Take this example from Honda.
We get it – translations are hard – but these motorcycle riding safety rules are pure joy.
“When a passenger of the foot, hooves in sight, tootel the horn trumpet melodiously at first. If he still obstacles your passage, tootel him with vigor and express by word of mouth, warning Hi, Hi.” It’s fun to try to imagine what “tooteling melodiously” would sound like.
Also: “Beware of the wandering horse that he shall not take fright as you pass him. Do not explode the exhaust box at him. Go smoothingly by.” Then “Give big space to the festive dog that makes sport in roadway. Avoid entanglement of dog with wheel spokes.” What is the festive dog?
Finally: “ Go soothingly on the grease mud, as there lurks the skid demon. Press the brake foot as you roll around the corners, and save the collapse and tie up.”
It’s not easy to translate between a language like Japanese into English, but this time the result is brilliant.
6. IKEA number three
IKEA again. Their products are just so popular!
This person’s manual told them to throw away one of the parts. Our questions are, why was this part included in the first place? Why does it need to be thrown away?
There’s probably some good reason known only to IKEA, and these instructions are giving nothing away.
7. Warning: do not throw antenna at spouse
Sometimes instructions really are nonsensical – or the writers assumed that the users wouldn’t be very bright.
Here are some particularly bizarre instructions, warning the user:
- Do not attempt to install if drunk, pregnant or both
- Do not eat antenna
- Do not throw antenna at spouse
Perhaps something got lost in translation, or maybe a purchaser has previously tried to eat the product, with unpleasant results.
The moral of the story is: be careful when installing your new antenna, don’t give into the urge to throw the antenna at anyone who happens to be standing nearby – and eat a sandwich if you get hungry.
8. Watch out for your brain
Here’s a strange warning label from a tube of medication, advising users to: “Avoid contact with eyes, ears, brainand surrounding membranes.” We very much hope that whoever is using this medication has their skull intact, and has very little practical chance of touching their brain with this tube.
Perhaps whoever wrote this warning was following the regulations too closely, which led them to come up with this absurdity.
9. You’re doing it wrong. You’re still doing it wrong.
We can’t make head nor tail of these instructions for this bicycle helmet either.
Diagrams are meant to make comprehension easier, but we’re more confused than ever. Perhaps that’s because there appears to be no difference between the “correct” and “incorrect” usage of this helmet – apart from the circle and line over the second diagram.
Whoever made this warning label didn’t put enough nearly effort into their diagrams. Hopefully, the user eventually managed to work it out for themselves – safety first!
10. Instructions for the sake of it
There are several confusing things about these office chair instructions.
It contains a plethora of labelled parts, with no order to the labels, and no key to tell us what anything is. We’ve already mentioned how translations can cause some trouble, but the words written in this manual are completely unintelligible. The different parts of the sentence seem to be pretty much unconnected.
11. IKEA number four
This is the last IKEA example – we promise!
These were the only instructions this person received in their IKEA user manual, which is mystifying. Is this a diagram of how your hand is should look after you’ve finished assembling your furniture?
12. Dragon Ball Z toy instructions
Where do we start? This Dragon Ball Z children’s toy has come with a lot of instructions… None of which make any sense.
The series of three diagrams at the beginning seem to almost make sense – if you don’t read the words next to them.
Then, it seems like the person (or persons) who wrote these instructions simply strung a series of random words together, and arranged them into bullet points. It’s like reading poetry.
The symbols along the bottom of the instructions are intriguing. Our guess is that the two middle icons mean “do not get wet” and “do not heat up”, but the trail goes cold there.
13. Keep right… No, left!
Here’s a simple one – a road sign where the visual symbol doesn’t match up with the words.
The sign warns drivers “keep right”, but the arrow points left! What to do? Driving is hard enough without these conundrums.
Either someone was clueless about the difference between left and right, or not enough care went into making this sign.
14. Going nowhere
Here are some more equally confusing road signs.
The top sign instructs drivers to “stop”, which is fairly standard. That’s where the normality ends. The signs below forbid the driver from travelling in any direction whatsoever. What to do? The only option seems to be wait here forever.
We can also see more equally forbidding signs in the background, reading “wrong way” and “do not enter”. It seems right to conclude that, if you’ve ended up in front of these signs, you’ve gone the wrong way.
15. Thank you for noticing
It’s possible to have a sign that means absolutely nothing. Here’s an extremely polite – but perhaps slightly pointless – sign.
It reads: “NOTICE: thank you for noticing this new notice. Your noticing it has been noted.” What a waste of a sign! The only purpose it serves is to create confusion, and, potentially, laughter.
16. Everything is forbidden
Here’s another sign, this time from Beijing, China.
It’s forbidden for people to do, well, pretty much anything. Some of the symbols we can read mean no: driving, littering, cycling, smoking, guns and knives, parking, dogs, juggling, vomiting, camping, fires, skateboarding, skating, congregating, football, or parties.
What else is there left to do?
17. Constructing an outdoor playset
If you’ve bought the playset that goes with these instructions, you’ll probably regret it.
Assembling a children’s toy has never been so confusing. The text is confusing, and the presentation of the diagrams leave a lot to be desired. There’s a lot going on in the diagrams but none of it makes much sense.
You’d be forgiven for taking a hammer to the whole thing.
18. Follow the map
Maps are supposed to make navigating much easier, right?
Labelling the buildings 1–4 on this map leaves a lot to be desired, considering how the map’s legend orders the numbers differently.
Which building is actually Building 1? Is it Building 4? Which is Building 4? Building 2?
Eventually, you might find it easier to throw this map away, and just walk around aimlessly until you find where you’re going by pure chance.
19. How do I interpret the programmed actions?
Here’s another super confusing manual, this time for a wired remote controller.
The text contains so many contradictory instructions that the text is rendered virtually meaningless. The language used is obscure, and the long sentences mean users have to remember too much information in their heads just to get to the end of one sentence. And then, when you get to the end of the sentence, the meaning is unclear.
This is a problem, when the user has probably paid a lot of money for whatever this device controls.
20. English as a second language
This final example may not be so confusing after all.
The label says: “To the user: if you cannot read English, do not use this product until the label has been fully explained to you”. In English! But when you think about it, maybe the warning actually makes sense.
The rest of the instructions are written in English – apart from a duplicate warning in Spanish. Perhaps the product was being sold in a non-English-speaking region, so there was a chance the user might not understand the instructions.
But then why not write all the instructions in Spanish too, just in case? The mind boggles.
Our intention here is not to undermine the efforts of people working hard to provide help. It can be very difficult to write documentation, as the examples show.
This article shines a spotlight on some of the funniest and most confusing documentation out there – with the hope that you’ll be inspired to appreciate the importance of producing good documentation for users.
Instructions do matter. People do read documentation – if only to mock it and complain about it.
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