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June 3, 2002 — 2 PM


Nobody’s reading them, “because they are horribly written,” says one consumer consultant. The question? “Why Won't We Read the Manual?” as asked by the Washington Post.

The article discusses Americans’ reluctance to ever crack the cellophane on their user manuals, not just for computers and software, but for cars, appliances, VCRs, you name it. While the author makes much ado about laziness and the desire for instant gratification, she only briefly touches on another idea: that people shouldn’t need to read manuals.

Consumers buy products under the flawed logic that they will make our lives easier, and possibly more entertaining. The dishwasher and the car make their respective tasks — cleaning and transportation — quicker and less demanding. Only technogeeks like myself get some weird satisfaction about knowing the ins and outs of machines. For everyone else, it should just work out of the box in a way that is self-evident and simple.

For example, the article mentions one fashion in which computer manufacturers are making installation less troubling, thereby cutting the number of tech support calls they receive: colour-coding cables and plugs so that anyone can see with a quick glance what wire goes where. My question: why did it take the PC industry 20 years to figure this out? (Sidebrag: Macs have had labelled connectors since the 1980s.)

The reason companies are overwhelmed by the costs of tech support is because of bad design. Good design means a product does what you expect it to do, and doing it seems obvious from the first glance. If necessary, it means making products simpler. Eliminate unnecessary features; tame those remote controls with 82 identical buttons. If people want the super-deluxe edition, it will be there, but you shouldn’t need a degree in industrial design to set the spin cycle on your washing machine. Unfortunately this would also require that salesmen stop upselling their customers. And as we all know, for only $78 more, you can have the Slo-mo InstaFreeze with SpringBack Compression and WavePhoton Premogrifier! Batteries not included.


Previously: London Letters

Subsequently: Baa Baa Bald Sheep

June 2002
the Archives