I put up a shed last weekend (yes, the designer lifestyle is that glamorous): two days of stressful toil lengthened in no small part by the appalling quality of the ‘instructions’ provided: 14 pages of verbal and visual redundancy, irrelevance and confusion. Well what did I expect for £99?
Most products arrive with scant, inaccurate or misleading information for assembly and use. Many well-designed consumer products neglect information as part of the product experience, leading to returns, safety issues, customer dissatisfaction and erosion of brand loyalty. This seems overwhelmingly the norm and we are accustomed to sucking up all the wasted time, the frustration and stress, and moving on with our lives. Why are ‘instructions’ such a design-free zone?
A small sample of text from my shed instructions illustrates a common absence of information design and little or no regard for the user:
A) FASTEN EACH OF THE TWO HINGES TO THE LEFT HAND SIDE OF PTGVDR1672 (DOOR) USING 30mm SCREWS. SCREWS MUST SECURE INTO THE TWO HORIZONTAL BRACES ON THE BACK OF PTGVDR1672. B)LAY ABQ57DEV2 (DOOR END) FACE UP ON GROUND. POSITION PTGVDR1672 (DOOR) ON ABQ57DEV2 (DOOR END) OF SHED ENSURING THAT THE PTGVDR1672 (DOOR) IS SQUARE WITH EQUAL GAPS TO LEFT AND RIGHT AND SECURE EACH HINGE TO ABQ57DEV2 (DOOR END) WITH 30mm SCREWS.
Is this accessible? Is it even understandable? Why the SHOUTING CAPITALS? Are the product codes of any value to the user? A rough stab at a Plain English version uses fewer words, half the space and gives the same information with more clarity:
Fasten the two hinges to the left-hand side of the door. Lay door end panel down with face up. Position door squarely on door end panel with equal gaps on either side. Fix hinges to door end panel using 30mm screws, which must secure in to the two horizontal braces on the back of the door.
OK not Shakespeare, but comprehension at least looks like a possibility now. If the whole of the text, the terrible visuals, typography and layout were then also considered with similar care – you might have an instruction to enhance rather than undermine the product experience…
Design and Industry create wonderful life-improving devices, although few are operable without some micro-education in the form of ‘the instructions’. Our relationship with products – and therefore their success – owes much to how quickly and well we learn how to use them. In the rush to market and never-more-severe pressure to strip out every last atom of cost from production, designing information is routinely the last and least consideration for most manufacturers. Many manuals and instructions are complex badly translated multi-language, multi-product tomes that require serious impromptu editing just to locate the bit about your product. Some manufacturers only see product afterlife as another revenue opportunity (extra insurance?; premium rate helplines?; expensive replacement parts?) and would seem to care little if our sheds collapse on the neighbour’s cat because we put it together wrong…
There is no fundamental reason why good information cannot be provided at very little or no additional cost and there is a growing interest in ‘service design’ and consideration of the full product experience. A certain fruit-branded electronics manufacturer beloved of designers already considers the product-consumer relationship so completely that many of their communication/computing devices can be said truthfully to work “right out of the box” and continue to operate intuitively.
I don’t argue for instructions to be printed on expensive paper or be made to “look nice” (although that would be a by-product of fully rationalising the content), just for properly designed and tested text and imagery that works as well as the product. A little information design input can add significant value to a product or service, increasing customer satisfaction and brand loyalty – not to mention giving an incremental nudge upwards to the quality of our everyday lives.
So… anyone want to start a Campaign For Real Information?