When did you last use a user manual?

Someone recently commented on the inclusion of a wooden chopping board and plastic tub in my dishwasher, stating that the manual to theirs says those items shouldn’t be put in, and I realised that I had never read or even seen the manual to my dishwasher. So began one of the most interesting blog posts ever…

Seriously though, I think the realisation is quite interesting. When did I, and I’d wager most people under 40, stop thinking we had to read the manual? (the someone was my father-in-common-law who’s in his 70’s and a man that treats a manual with respect).

My earliest memory of personally flouncing written instructions is with Transformer. You’d get them out of the box and just try to figure out the transformation. I remember there were manuals, but just because I liked the drawings.

(I remember cool red plastic overlays that you applied to the back of the boxes as well, that showed the strength and stats of each character and being shocked by one surprisingly poor quality of Soundwave. Can’t remember which now tough).

But, early digital watches I remember having manuals for. Our Betamax and following VHS players at home as well. I remember my parents having a stack of other house manuals and seeing them referenced from time to time, though mostly, the manual memory attached to my Dad is the Haynes sort, which again I liked the pictures in.

In my home now we have a similar stack but I think only because we feel we should. I can’t actually remember having ever looked at or referenced one, case in point, the new dishwasher.

My reckoning then is that the behaviours of a 30 something and 70 something deviated in the last 20-30 years and that the best case study for designing away the manual over that period has to be Apple, whose products come now with a business card size diagram at most.

Aside: Generally, I think that using Apple as a case study is lazy and not actually all that valuable. They’re an outlier. A freak. Un-replaceable in many many ways. In this case though I do feel they epitomise the movement of utter ease of use and the goal of designing intuitions.

They do still produce full instructions for everything they make, but they hide then online for emergencies and troubleshooting. Not for actually getting started.

The plug and play factor of Apple products exhibits best in the classic early iMac campaigns with Jeff Goldblum:

While you’re in Jeff mode, do check out drunken Jeff:

… In which the ease of ‘10 minutes out of the box and you’re on the internet’ gets another mention. 

Easy does it. Now more than ever. The Steve Krug book Don’t Make Me Think springs to mind for obvious reasons, though less obvious is why so many companies still seem so far off grasping the importance of simplicity (well worth a read on this topic: I just remembered a great post from Russell Davies on the Sony DSC-QX10, for which the product name alone makes you scratch your head).

I’m not saying just stop including the manual, because there will always be certain essential pieces of info that your audience doesn’t know (and then the multiple languages that those audiences speak) but when this A2 piece of paper came with my bike saddle, it makes me question more than just the paper waste:


Post notes. Want to think more about the idea of ‘designing intuitions’.