Have you ever looked for information only to find it where you didn’t expect it? This happened to me recently. Whenever possible, I avoid printing to “save a tree,” but then the time finally came when I had to print something and also install the printer driver on my computer. After clicking the “print” button, nothing happened. So I went to the printing room where I by chance noticed some text on the back of the door. I walked back to my laptop, followed the steps (which I luckily remembered) and installed the printer. Only the instruction’s shortness and mere chance saved me from having to get help from colleagues.

Let’s be honest. We all know that the place where manuals are read from beginning to end is utopia. Usually, they are cast aside and spend the rest of their lives in a drawer. And yet, we all know this common acronym, “RTFM,” or “read the freakin’ manual.” There is a ruder version, but both express exasperation about users not consulting the manual. What’s perhaps interesting is that when this phrase is uttered, people don’t mean read the manual from front to back, but read the relevant section.

Saying “RTFM” shows a clear sign of a lack of empathy for users. If the user interface were self-explanatory, users wouldn’t go looking for information in the first place. Empathy starts with intuitive user interfaces that speak to the user. Empathy can also be expressed with well-considered placement of text on the user interface and by tone of voice. No superiority and no technical jargon, please. I know of cases when users just did not find the right answer in the manual because they were not familiar with the technical term used.

My little printing adventure from the beginning conveys positive and negative points. Here’s my balance sheet:

  • Negative note no.1:
    No help was provided where it was needed – i.e. on the screen. So I had to go look for information.
  • Negative note no.2:
    The info I needed was on the back of a door that is usually open; so it could easily be overlooked.
  • Positive note no.1:
    Instead of the whole manual, only the important info was taped to the door.
  • Positive note no.2:
    The text was short, simple, and friendly.

Just looking at this example, the concept of “manual” clearly needs modernizing. People are busy and increasingly unwilling to hunt for information in the hopes of finding a solution to their problem. That’s why in designing software it is crucial that the user interface be as intuitive as possible. But, in those inevitable situations when it is needed, on-screen, contextualized help should be short, clear and appear when and where the user needs it. “Manual” no longer exclusively refers to heavy books of wisdom – and they no longer necessarily have to be held in your hand. Rather, “manuals” can be the important bits of information in the context of the relevant screen.

How can we help the “manual” to get rid of its bad reputation? We can get rid of the idea of a big heavy book in the drawer that’ll make up for mistakes in design and strive to design a user-friendly UI that provides guidance in all its aspects where and when people need it. Users may not read the manual in the classical sense of the term, but they will however read the UI that is in front of them. They’ll read its patterns, layout, interaction design, and the texts that are placed on it.

So, going back to my printing adventure. If the software had suggested a printer in the printing room, and all I had to do was confirm the installation, printing a document wouldn’t have been as big of a hassle.

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