Thoughts on the manual

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Thoughts on the manual

We have more ways to offer instructions than ever before, but it’s not obvious that we’re getting better at it. Not just the operator’s manual, but every way we have to teach and offer instructions… Some (uncategorized) things to consider:

  • Assume that some people will not read the manual, no matter how clear it is or what format it takes. If reading the manual is essential for safety or success, consider redesigning the product so that’s not the case.
  • If it’s important, say it a few times, in a few places.
  • People learn by doing. If that’s difficult or dangerous, they learn by understanding the concept. If that’s too much, they learn by watching someone else. And finally, in last place, they learn by reading about the steps.
  • Every time someone looks to the manual for instructions, they’re acknowledging that you know something they don’t know. The worst instructions fail to have empathy for that gap.
  • Video instructions have spread on YouTube. That’s because the creators can monetize them and Google gives them a boost in search.
  • Video instructions offer a few real benefits. First, in a post-literate world, more people can absorb them. Second, they enforce a linear process, as it’s difficult to skip ahead.
  • Video instructions are a problem, though, because they’re slow, unscannable, hard to review, time-consuming to update and frustrating for someone who simply wants to understand the concept.
  • One reason linear instructions are problematic is that the teacher doesn’t know what the student doesn’t know. So we end up including too much, just to be sure we aren’t leaving someone behind. Which is boring, so people zone out or skip ahead.
  • And one reason that interactive instructions are challenging is that sometimes, the student doesn’t know what the student doesn’t know. Giving an overview gives users a way in, a chance to then tell you what they don’t know.
  • Some instructions are written by lawyers. They are defensive in nature. The many, many pages of warnings (don’t use the camera in the bathtub!) aren’t designed to be read or understood, and as a result, we’ve been trained to ignore all of them.
  • The Ikea-led trend of not using words in printed instructions is a fine nod to the international nature of the world, but it harms the user. If you know enough about where the product is going to put a language on the outside of the box, you know enough to put the words in the pictograph manual as well. If someone doesn’t want to read the words, they’re no worse off than they are now, but if they understand the language, it can help a lot.
  • Instructions can now be context-aware and they should be. It doesn’t make sense to simply move the instruction manual to the web–make it interactive, find out where I’m stuck and show me what I need to know.
  • There are instructions designed to help us understand the context, the system and the strategy of the thing we’re going to be using. These should be written with that in mind, clearly and with a narrative. A story that helps us see what you see is worth telling.
  • There are instructions that we only need to go through once (assembly, for example) and these instructions should reward linearity. For example, assembling a piece of furniture or a bike should always come with a link to a video where we can see someone doing every single one of the steps we’re going to need to do.
  • Different people learn in different ways, so why have only way way for them to read the manual?
  • If you’re going to make a video explaining something, record it and then delete all the throat-clearing, preambles and asides you put in to make yourself comfortable.
  • If you’re not changing the instruction manual in response to user feedback, then your user manual is obsolete.
  • Everything else about your product or service was built by a professional. Your instructions should be too.

The first manual I created, in 1983, was for eight year old kids. I was an amateur. You can learn by doing.

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