Down with Wordy Instruction Manuals

DN Staff

August 4, 2003

3 Min Read
Down with Wordy Instruction Manuals

I don't like reading instruction manuals. I know that's bad and can lead to all kinds of mistakes-and often has-but still, I just don't like reading them.

They're too wordy. They're stiff in tone. They're often confusing.

And, they stifle creativity and learning. They prevent you from experimenting, from figuring out on your own how things go together and how they work.

I feel this way about all instructions, whether they're in cook books, or for household appliances, consumer electronics, or computer programs. It's part personality, part impatience, part ego, and part gender (men don't ask directions).

It's definitely not some deep-seated psychological problem that in my mind equates reading instructions with taking orders. I can take orders. I have a boss. I was in the military. I have a family.

No, long, wordy instruction manuals are, almost by definition, an indication that the product is not easy to use. And ease of use is a mantra of modern product design.

I'm not alone in my disdain for instruction manuals. Stephen McMahon, principal mechanical engineer at Instron Corp., says he doesn't like instruction manuals either. Nor does John Alpine, an E/E and computer scientist who is director of R&D at CoCreate. They both say that if instructions are absolutely necessary, pictorials are best. I agree. In fact, a perfect example of well-thought-out pictorial instructions comes from Bose, the music-systems company. I recently installed a set of their wall-mounted Acoustimass 5 speakers based on instructions that were entirely in pictures. There was not one written word of instruction. It took no time at all to install them.

Contrast that to gobbledygook like this, which I took from the manual for installing an indirect-fired water heater: In the run of the brass tee, install an NPT brass T&P valve long element, for hot water storage tanks (Required by local codes, but not less than the valve certified as meeting the requirements for relief valves for hot water heaters [ANSI Z21-22B-1984), by a nationally recognized lab that maintains periodic inspection of listed equipment. You could get the hives reading that.

Of course, some instructions are just plain silly. For example, here is an actual sentence from the instruction manual for a Kenmore oven: "When roasting, put your food in the oven." Really! How about this instruction for a Frigidaire air conditioner: "Plug in the air conditioner." I suppose that could help. I have a friend who once lugged a heavy air conditioner up three flights of stairs and wrestled it into the window in his bedroom, only to find out that he had placed it with the controls facing the outside. He probably would have figured that out when he plugged it in.

So here's my suggestion to those responsible for writing instruction manuals: Start all manuals with the troubleshooting box that tells what to do if the product doesn't work. After that, include traditional unstructions, if you must! That will help people who prefer to just dive in.

And for the instructions themselves, make them cartoons. Add some drama-perhaps make them read like a "whodunit" ("Harry grabbed the cord from the box. 'What would she have done with this,' he said to himself, eyes darting around the room until he spotted an outlet.") Set them to verse. Turn them into a music video.

Now there's an image: Instruction manuals on MTV. I'd watch.

Reach Teague at [email protected].

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