Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Instruction Manuals or Doorstops?

After my last rant about how I think stuff made today is as good (or bad) as stuff from the 'good old days', this one may seem a bit hypocritical. After all, one of the plus points I mentioned about newer technology is how much more feature laden they are. Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud, and so the presence of a bajillion features results in... massive instruction manuals.

I'm one of those weirdos that reads instruction manuals from cover to cover. Yeah, I even check where my nearest authorized agent is in the list at the back of the book (but I stop short of writing notes in the 'Notes' section). I like to know... no, I need to know about or at least be aware of every little feature of every device that I own, be it a digital camera or a washing machine. Ten years ago, this wasn't a big deal, because there wasn't that much complexity in these things. Buy a basic camera and there's not that much to learn, and what little there is isn't much different from most other cameras. Same thing with TVs, phones, portable music players, etc... (admittedly, VCRs have always been a bit messy. How the hell does OTR work again?).

These days though, it's a different kettle of fish. The average consumer electronics device seems to come with a manual that isn't short story length anymore. They're more like novellas, with some approaching full blown novel status. Soon, out trusty doorstops won't be authored by the likes of Tolstoy, Dickens or Tolkien; no, they'll be authored by Nokia, LG, or Sony. That's because the devices of today are so feature laden that they require mammoth manuals. I spent months reading my mobile phone manual, reading bits of it whenever I had the time. Ditto for my digital camera, which comes replete with all manner of settings and usage notes. I haven't even started reading my laser printer's manual, and I can't imagine why it needs to be that long! A recently purchased washing machine has a load of special 'settings' that can be used in various combinations... Thankfully, I don't have a portable music player or PDA, because if I did my head would explode.

Now, for most human beings this isn't really a problem, because manufacturers seem to be aware of how ridiculously long their manuals have become. They provide convenient 'quick start' guides that sum up the basics in a few pages, and for the most part this is enough to make use of your device. Only a small percentage of these features are actually useful to everyone, and that percentage is all that you need to really learn. But I figure, why let all these features go to waste... why not make use of them? Some features are actually pretty cool once you know about them. Sure, a lot of them are still things you'd only ever do a handful of times, but at least by reading the manual I know that they can be done, even if I won't remember how and will still have to refer to the manual to use them properly. Actually, this is probably how manuals are meant to be used now anyway - reference books that you consult when you're not sure. The problem is, I still need to read the manual to become aware of the available features (those good old unknown unknowns), and doing that takes more and more time these days.

My gripe then is not that I want fewer features. I want better manuals and better interfaces. Better manuals should give a quick start guide for everything, or at least an introduction to everything that a person can read in order to understand what their device can do without having to read about how it does it. Better interfaces because, gosh, do all these things really require consulting the instructions manual to figure out? It's a fundamental problem that arises because devices are made to do a boatload of things with only a handful of buttons that do different things depending on context. While it's a difficult problem to solve, I think lots of manufacturers are just not doing a good enough job of making these things intuitive - button functions can be inconsistent and contradictory, on screen displays are vague and misleading.

Manufacturers, make these things better! Better manuals, more intuitive interfaces! One of the things that intrigues me about the iPhone is the fact that the interface isn't restricted by buttons - the screen itself is the interface, and the 'buttons' can be customized to suit the context that the device is in. I get the feeling this could be much, much better than what we've got now. Here's hoping.

As an aside, how on Earth did those fine folks at Starfleet manage to do all those things with the meagre few buttons available on their tricorders? Just thinking about the type of manual that must come with a tricorder is enough to give me a headache.

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