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Are Devices Only as Usable as their Instruction Manuals?

by Pamela Gay , 26.03.2012

This article is re-posted from User Centric’s blog.

Packaging and instruction manuals are as important to the usability of a product as the product itself. Understanding how and in what contexts the device is used is necessary to ensure that packaging and manuals facilitate an efficient, effective, and satisfying user experience.

The recent winner of the IxDA 2012 Interaction Awards, ”Out of the box" by Vitamins, is a packaging and manual concept for a smartphone. In this concept, the phone is placed inside of a book. As you page through the book, you see icons and arrows pointing to places on the actual phone, helping you familiarize yourself with your new device.


IxDA 2012 Interaction Awards Winner takes a unique approach to the Set-up Wizard.

An interesting idea for sure, but the user-centered designer in me wants answers to some key questions about the manual first. What is the goal of the manual? Is it to help the user set up the phone (i.e., a quick-start guide)? If so, why was the manual designed to be stored on a shelf like a book? The setup process is typically just a one-time experience. Or was this manual meant to be a reference book in case the user doesn't know how to do something? If so, the book should be designed to facilitate quick skimming instead of making the user open it, place the phone inside, and go through the "wizard."

The rationale behind this initiative is good; it’s an attempt to introduce older generations to technology with a concept they are familiar with (i.e., a book). However, not all of the aspects of user-centered design appear to have been considered.

A good example of user-centered packaging and instructions is Kindle 3. Amazon’s environmentally friendly packaging initiative not only reduces the amount of packaging but it also decreases user frustration by eliminating useless boxes and allowing the user to quickly get their hands on the purchased device. The Kindle 3 manual has a very clear goal − to get you started with the device. It is short, small, and has an effective layout with proper typography. Because the manual is clearly written and easy to skim, it can also be used as a reference.

Packaging and instructions shape the impressions of the products they accompany. One of the goals is, of course, a positive initial reaction to the product. Another key consideration is the ease of use of these materials, which affects not only customer satisfaction but sometimes also people’s safety. Usability testing of instructions for medical and military applications is especially important, and can save lives. An interesting example of a military manual is an instruction booklet for a German Tiger tank from World War II. It is apparent that the manual was designed with the users (soldiers) in mind and with the ultimate goal to be eagerly read and readily understood.

Any product, whether a brand new gizmo or a machine of destruction, will benefit from the application of user-centered design principles and proper research to generate positive first impressions, ensure user safety, and create an overall great user experience.