I don’t know what kind of materials you may have been asked to produce, but I’ve done many product instruction documents over my career, and it is indeed a specialty of sorts.
The basis of my core philosophy is the user is king. You absolutely must know who the user of the content is, what they know, what they may think they know, and their stake in carrying out the procedure(s) you communicate correctly.
For example, under one of my current contracts, I author installation guides for motorized window treatments. These range from hard-wired commercial roller shades and draperies you’d find in hotels, hospitals, schools, etc., batch-installed during construction, to battery-powered consumer-custom blinds and shades you can order at Lowes or Home Depot and install yourself. So naturally, the content I formulate for commercial dealer/installer use is quite different than that aimed at the DIY homeowner. Commercial installers have tools, experience, and a job to complete, whereas the homeowner may only handle tools occasionally, if at all, and will be much more likely to follow instructions to the letter. Give the commercial installer too much information and it will all be discarded in favor of experience, peer advice, and expedience. Give the commercial installer too little information, and you may find yourself to blame for a botched installation that will cost big money to correct. It can be a delicate balance. For consumer-install products, either too much or too little detail may cause confusion, but more importantly, if you fail to anticipate all the ways it can go wrong, it’s not hard to design instructions that will lead to a damaged product, or worse, an injured person. Product instructions are rarely taken as seriously as they are when they’re to blame for a mishap. It goes from “nobody reads these” to “these could have gotten me killed” with miraculous speed.
All that drains into what I’ll say about Ikea-style instructions. As you’ve experienced, people who need instructions for their products seem to have Ikea in their mind as an example of their vision. I’ve had to tell many such people over my career the truth is Ikea’s customers hate those instructions. They tell horror stories of assembling bookshelves, chairs, and whole kitchens backwards. They curse the failure of the shitty flakeboard to hold up under the stress of the disassembly and reassembly involved in error correction. They laugh at their own pain when comedians do entire bits based on tales of Ikea woe. Sure, there’s a certain cleverness in the faceless, genderless figures who say nothing, and it’s an inspiration to see what seems like so much accomplished with utterly unblemished simplicity. Conceptually, the style gets really attractive when purveyors of product find out that international trade rules require instructions in every destination country’s official language. No words; no problem. While I’d admit there are some—read: few—products and distribution scenarios in which the style may be appropriate and effective, I’d say in every other case, including Ikea itself, such instructions are lazy, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous. The word “cheap” also comes to mind, which brings me to the next thing I’d want to include in a cursory discussion on this topic. That’s perception.
Even though you’ll hear a thousand times how nobody reads the instructions, inextricably, the materials that are taken out of the box by the customer’s hands when that package is first opened, are an integral part of the product. When people really like a product, they’ll be heard saying “it just works.” Well potentially, the instructions are the very first “moving part” of that product that will be pressed into service, and if that part fails, “it just works” may never be uttered, even if there’s nothing else wrong with the item. Lazy, poorly written instructions, and those that are included solely for the sake of meeting requirements, are a massive strategic error on the part of the maker. The design of the instructions and the fulfillment of their prescribed function are as important as those factors in relation to any other part of the product in the aggregate that forms customer experience. A bad experience with a product document cheapens the product and often becomes the most memorable part of one’s experience with the product. Conversely and unfortunately, like most things left to humans, a good experience is often the first thing forgotten. That often leaves the job of designing instruction documents rather thankless, and for most designer types, ultimately unfulfilling.