Absolutely nothing, if no one reads them.

The view of many people when they encounter a new gadget and its instructions is “Do I have to read all that?“, “which bit do I need to look at?”  These are typical of the comments we heard during a recent lengthy usability study; even the people who professed to read instructions thoroughly only skimmed through them.  They blanched when the multi-lingual/multi-model user manual appeared.  When presented with these tomes, the frustration and despair of users is palpable.

Instructions are synonymous with restaurant menus; people only want to dip in and out, their eyes scanning and concentrating on the interesting bits.  Once the reader feels they’ve gleaned enough information from the quick perusal, they’re ready to start using the gadget.

Now, I’m no angel when it comes to following instructions.  I often only glance at information and then have to go back to the instructions when I can’t even switch a device on.  I’m not alone.  People seem happier tinkering and poking, figuring out how to do something manually, believing they have downloaded the basics with their cursory scan of the information.

A deep seated need is satisfied by physical interaction with an interface, especially if the gadget seems to be working (rightly or wrongly) in a way we expect.  A person’s level of education does not seem to be a factor in this behaviour.  In our study, the same behaviours occurred irrespective of the user’s education, which ranged from having no formal qualifications through to PhDs.  Figuring things out for ourselves seems to provide us with a sense of achievement, especially if it does not involve having to resort to the instructions again.

Resentment and frustration surface if a gadget is not intuitive, if it has complex functionality with multiple buttons or indecipherable displays with symbols and digits.  People tend to give up, if instructions have to be read repeatedly before anything tangible happens with the device.  They declare themselves stupid, or become frustrated with the instructions and the gadget, starting to guess what to do.  Instructions that are overly complex, contain too much information or simply are not laid out in the expected sequence, are then classified as worthless.  These experiences unfortunately reinforce the belief that instructions are good for nothing.

Given that we rarely look at instructions, let alone digest them completely, it’s a folly to pin our hopes on them to explain how to use a device.  It doesn’t matter how simple the device functionality is, if the device design is not intuitive and the instructions are poor then the device is rendered useless, or worse, misleading and potentially dangerous.

Usability comes from good design and clear communication.  Users want to make intuitive guesses about device functionality.  They want instructions to provide guidance, support and confirmation in their assumptions.

So, lets pull our instruction leaflets out of the boxes, dust them down and thrust them into the limelight.  Make them useful for users once more.