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Americans are famous for ignoring instruction manuals and plowing right in. Men are worse about it than women, and the younger we are, the less we bother with instructions or advice.

There are many reasons for this, but the biggest ones are that instruction manuals are too long, too dense, and too technical.

Of course they are, because of who writes them – tech experts – the worst possible choice for writing guides. They know the product inside and out and assume most of what they know needs no explanation. They also use scientific jargon the rest of us don’t understand.

A memorable User Experience (UX) in the lab.

The engineers who had designed the product we were testing had been invited to observe from behind the mirrored glass.

As they watched an intelligent adult woman struggle with an absolutely awful set of instructions, they mocked her and called her stupid. They were, of course, shooting the messenger who was holding their poor design up to the light. I told them she is not stupid – she is your customer, and there are millions just like her who will struggle with the same things she did. For this impertinence, I lost the account to someone who would agree that the fault is the customer’s, not theirs. Good riddance.

Global products need to produce manuals in dozens of languages, leading to the inevitable translation and syntax errors we’ve all seen. 

There are so many of them that an entire wing in the YouTube Hall of Shame is devoted to embarrassing translation errors.

Using only pictures solves the language problems, like IKEA does with their instructions, but not everyone is a fan of crude black and white line drawings. Sure, picture-only directions avoid the need for translation and reduce printing costs, but they lose a lot, too.

The quality of the manual is closely related to the quality of the product.

Wiser consumers know this. They recognize that when a company doesn’t care about making a quality product, they aren’t likely to care about producing well-written setup and operating instructions.

Those In The Know have learned the quality of the manual is an indicator of product quality and so they “comparison shop” product manuals before buying. They understand the best manuals are brief, simple, and to the point. 

Those In The Know avoid products whose manuals are too dense, too mechanical, and have long FAQ sections. They agree with Mark Svenvold, who says the FAQ universe is filled with “answers to almost every question but the one you are asking.” Here is the link to his excellent article, The Disappearance of the Instruction Manual.

What is the best way to write instruction manuals?

I don’t know, but here is how we do it:

  • We start with outsiders from all walks of life.
  • We give products to regular people without instructions or advice of any kind.
  • We ask our study subjects to figure out how to put things together, turn them on, and use them. 

Independently and with teams, paid volunteers work through things aloud. They make mistakes, identify barriers and choke points, try different things, and arrive at solutions. Scientists collect and analyze the learnings and give them to people with real writing talent. Then we test them, again with regular people.

Read on only if you want to be an exceptional Executive Decision-Maker.

Take the responsibility for seeing that your instruction manuals are great because you:  

  • Begin by understanding how real people set up and use your product,
  • Use what investigators learn to explain things simply, in print and on video so everyone can be happy, and
  • Write not only a great manual, but a great Quick Start Guide, too.

The challenge is to explain procedures simply and directly, but without condescending. Kind of like how we should be treating customers in general. 

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Thanks for your thoughtful Veteran’s Day wishes, too. Here’s a photo of me in Vietnam in 1969.