Little lessons from big instruction manuals

When I installed my new microwave, I got a thick packet of instructions. The first line of the booklet says “READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS CAREFULLY.” Followed by 25 pages of text.


I understand why they do this. It’s all in the manual so it’s not the company’s fault if something goes wrong. But there is nothing user-centered about that instruction manual.

They made the manual to protect the company, not to help the customer.

Usually this wouldn’t matter, but on the inside of my microwave there was a brown ish insert that looked like part of the packaging. I removed it, then realized it wasn’t cardboard and that it probably shouldn’t be removed. I wanted to be sure it belonged, so I went back and read the whole instruction manual.

Buried on page 14 way after the “setting up your microwave” section, was one sentence that said “Do not remove the mica insert protecting the magnetron.”

My question was finally answered so I disfigured the piece and fit it back into its slot. Then I reflected on how that user experience could have been much better.

Why not design the manual with human tendencies in mind? Most people skim, and don’t read. The first section of the directions should probably include some common mistakes users make. The ten most common problems of microwave users. List them all on the first page knowing that barely anyone is going to make it through all 25 pages.

The company can still include all the other info to cover themselves from lawsuits, but the organization and hierarchy should be much different.

Then I thought again, why wouldn’t a company do better?

Here’s why:  It’s really easy to say “read all the directions,” but it’s really hard to bring users in and see what the most important directions are. Doing better requires being wrong. Testing one version, getting feedback and iterating.

Easy for you sometimes means hard for the consumer. Big companies get away with things like that for a while, but it’s not a tradeoff anyone should set out to make from the start.