I have both read and written a fair number of manuals for the setup, use, maintenance, and troubleshooting of electronic devices. And unfortunately, the largest percentage of calls coming into our help desk could have been answered with a cursory glance at the manual.
What I have learned is that there is a mathematical relationship between the thickness of the manual, even though it may contain multiple languages and pages of official government-approved disclaimers, and an individual’s propensity to toss the manual aside -- ostensibly to be read later -- after first opening the box.
And, for years I used a personalized license plate to spark discussion among my colleagues about “1sr Reading Your *** Manual.” I got laughs – but little compliance.
Such is life.
Therefore, designers spend an inordinate amount of time idiot-proofing the graphical user interface (screen or control panel to ordinary people) to force people to follow some semblance of a sequence and to trap the majority of errors. Along with the original design comes on-screen prompts, help keys, and referrals to particular problems through the use of error codes. My favorite being the one we used on the help desk to indicate especially problematical users. One-Dee-Ten-Tee. Or as it was coded into the system, 1D10T.
But no amount of skill can overcome a user’s propensity to skip the manual and plunge ahead. Unless they are forced to read the manual, tested on the knowledge contained in the manual, and compelled to demonstrate some level of competence with the device. And yet, months later, the manual is nowhere to be found or buried in a dusty JIC (Just In Case) file for some future need. Another observation: the manual travels farther and farther from the device as time marches on. Unless you are smart enough to build a manual holder unobtrusively into the case design of the device. Unfortunately, most electronic devices are smaller than the manual – so no joy to be found there.
Which begs the question: how do you write a manual for devices containing artificial intelligence with self-learning capabilities? Or do you just record (or backup) the device’s state at every use? I would hate to think that years of learning and better decision-making would be lost every time you needed to replace the device or repair its memory. Think about it: genius solutions and performance in the morning and relative stupidity after the repair man leaves
So what’s the point of this blog post? Perhaps it is a plea for you to read your manuals. But, it most likely is an illustration that knowledgeable individuals who can read manuals, solve problems, and deal with cranky people will always have some position in the job market – because, as the night follows the day, most executives do not want to assume the hassle of actually speaking with customers and users after the sale.