Thursday, February 02, 2006

Ignoring Instructions

Good designs speak louder than use-and-care manuals

by Carla Diana

NEW YORK, August 27, 1997 -- "While keeping [Image]
actuation switch depressed, turn adjustment knob
until Y-slot releases coaxial cable." [Stop, you're
turning me on. -- Ed.]

Huh? Why bother reading this junk when your fingers are
itching to get your new piece of electronic equipment up
and running? Studying directions like these sometimes
make you feel more confused than you were before you'd
seen them.

What some manufacturers don't realize is that clear
instructions on how to use the product are as much a part
of the overall value as the "on" switch. Whether through
design, component labels, or use and care materials, a
good product should communicate its use to the person
handling it. Cryptic or incomplete directions can lead to
hair-pulling frustration and dissatisfaction.

Many use and care guides are poorly written, and consumer
electronics, which can have as many buttons and knobs as
the cockpit of a 747, don't score high on the overall
user-friendliness scale. Miniscule type and poor layouts
offer few clues as to which information is more important
or should be read first. Often, instruction booklets are
little more than edited engineering spec sheets.

Use-and-care manuals written for a group of products,
instead of one particular model, leave the user wondering
whether she has the ZX101 with the adjustment knob in the
back, or the ZX103 with the adjustment knob on the side.
Manuals that are simply translated from another language
give advice that's culturally inappropriate -- for
example, a microwave oven booklet boasts recipes for
Dutch fish patties while skimping on instructions for
hotdogs. Furthermore, bad translations with awkward
grammar make you lose confidence in the instructions.

"But let's be honest," you say, "no one actually reads
those things." The satisfaction of getting your equipment
set up without reading the manual is akin to being in the
car and finding your destination on your own, resisting
the temptation of asking a stranger for help. It's the
same conflict:

"Honey, we've been lost for hours. Won't you
please just stop to get directions?"

"No! I'll find the #$%^& switch by myself or
die trying!"

Success may offer a good ego boost, but is all that
bravado really necessary? Ignoring the use-and-care
literature is an invitation to product misuse. Tossing
aside instructions may save a few moments, but ultimately
can waste time and possibly hurt the equipment. In
worst-case scenarios it can lead to damage that will void
your warranty.

Videotapes included with many new products are an
improvement when it comes to enlightening consumers. They
provide an introduction to a product, show its use by
visual example -- not just through potentially confusing
written instructions -- and often provide the extra value
of helpful tips. For example, a videotape that comes with
a camera would have advice on taking better photos,
including do's and don'ts. When the narrator says, "To
take photos of children, crouch down to their level," the
video can show a child, the photographer, and some
examples of good shots and bad shots, with a clear visual
demo of how the desired effect was achieved.

Videos are practical only for first-time setup, not as a
handy reference. Information in a video may be impossible
to find quickly, requiring the drudgery of fast-forward
and rewind searches. CD-ROM would make a better vehicle
for a use-and-care manual. You could search for help
topics, as you would in a book's index, watch visual
demonstrations, and hear audio instructions when
necessary. Until the household penetration of PCs
equipped with CD-ROM drives [hey, make that DVD-ROM
drives -- Ed.] equals that of VCRs, CD-ROM use and care
guides won't be an ideal option. Plus, computers aren't
always powered up and ready to go when you need to look
up something quick.

Ultimately, it's the designer's job to speak to the user,
before the latter even opens the instruction booklet.
Drawing on icons we're already familiar with, colors and
shapes to distinguish functional elements, and a logical
organization of components, a good design can be more
revealing than any written guide when it comes to showing
people its own use. Finally, manufacturers are starting
to face the dirty truth that use-and-care books often
stay untouched. By implementing designs that contain
helpful visual cues and on-screen menus, they show
they've gotten the message.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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