Where have all the instruction manuals gone?

The first version of Microsoft Word that I used came with a 300 page book detailing all the things I could do with it. Similarly, the first mobile phone I bought, an Eriksen PF768 that I still have, came with a 50 page instructions booklet. In comparison, the instructions for an iPad I bought 2 years ago just had a single card with a picture of the gadget on one side. As you can see in this picture, the card just had labels indicating where the on/off, volume and home buttons were. The instruction on the other side of the card simply said “To start, turn your iPad by pressing and holding the On/off button for a few seconds. Then follow the onscreen instructions to set up your iPad.”


So why don’t manufacturers provide printed instructions with their gadgets any more? Maybe it is because these gadgets do so much that a printed manual would be massive and costly to produce. It makes much more sense provide “online support” in the form of explanatory web pages and ways of searching for “help”. However, I think that the main reason for not providing a printed manuals is that people simply don’t use them any more.

For most people reading a manual, or for that matter consulting online help, are boring and only to be contemplated if all else fails. I would say that if people regularly need to consult the manual or help pages for a gadget then it’s probably a poorly designed gadget!

A well designed phone app should make it possible to figure out what you do just by tapping around on the touch screen. The designer steers you towards the right guess about what you need to do next and makes sure that if you makes the wrong guess you will know immediately and be able to get back where you were. The same thing applies to websites. A well designed website makes clear on the home page all the things that you can do with it and then leaves you to discover how to do them by “clicking around”. In the world of research that I am involved in, this is called learning by exploration. Learning to use a well designed gadget by exploration can be fun. Think of it as a puzzle rather than a lecture.

What then can printed information do for gadget owners, particularly seniors? The problem is that as gadgets get more and more sophisticated one can get left behind. Learning by exploration is good if you know roughly what you are trying to do and why. If you have never tried a video call using Skype or Facetime it might be difficult to imagine why this would be of value, or to understand the need to register and send invitations to potential contacts. To take an analogy, imagine I wanted to find out about museums I could visit while in London. What I want from a travel guide is information about what museums there are why I should want to visit a particular one and then some basic information on how to get to it. Unless I am a complete stranger to the country, I don’t want detailed step-by-step manual, how to call a cab, how to get into the building and so on.

There is some evidence that manufacturers are beginning to understand this problem. I recently bought an iPhone 4s. It came with a single folded sheet with an unprecedented 13 pictures of iPhone screens (not 1, 13!), each with a few words of introduction, very much in the style of a travel guide.

The book I am writing assumes the reader wants to learn by exploration but needs a guide to what is possible and why it might have value for them. The What, Why and How Guides in this blog give an idea of what this might look like.

Printed manuals are dead, long live the guide!

For an alternative take on this topic see http://bit.ly/1LhEf6n

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