Instruction manuals tell us more than how to use a product

Janet Nguyen and David Brancaccio May 29, 2018
A view of one of Ikea's instruction manuals. Ikea

Instruction manuals tell us more than how to use a product

Janet Nguyen and David Brancaccio May 29, 2018
A view of one of Ikea's instruction manuals. Ikea

You might think of instruction manuals as too dry and too technical, a necessary evil that’s in the way of what you really want to interact with: the purchase itself. 

But instruction manuals don’t just tell us how to use a product. They can illuminate how well it was designed, create a bond with the customer, and reveal how much technology has evolved. 

“A successful instruction manual is one that’s used as little as possible. It’s kind of the supporting actress waiting in the wings. It’s the product that’s the hero, the one that the consumer wants to be engaging with and it’s the one that manufacturer wants the consumer to be engaging with,” said Helene Schumacher, a writer for the BBC. “The instruction manual facilitates that relationship, and if it is an effective relationship, it has to be simple.”  

Schumacher recently researched the history of instruction manuals, discovering how much of an impact they can have on our lives.

She joined us to discuss notable instruction manuals throughout history, and what they say about the products themselves. 

The Kodak Brownie camera

In February 1900, Kodak introduced its first line of Brownie cameras — a cardboard box that sold for $1 and used film that only cost 15 cents a roll. 

The device has an important role in history, giving both amateurs and the middle class the chance to take their own snapshots, according to the Franklin Institute. Cameras prior to the 20th century could be cumbersome, involving long exposure times and heavy equipment.

“For the first time, the hobby of photography was within the financial reach of virtually everyone,” Kodak writes.  

A page from the instruction manual for Kodak's Six-20 Brownie camera, laying out its features.A page from the instruction manual for Kodak's Six-20 Brownie camera, laying out its basic features.

A page from the instruction manual for Kodak’s Six-20 Brownie camera, laying out its basic features.

Instruction manuals that came with various models of the Kodak Brownie camera didn’t just tell you how to use it on a functional level — they gave you advice on how to take good photos. 

“It’s not just saying, ‘This is how you operate this complex piece of machinery.’ It’s saying, ‘If you want to take a good portrait, do this. If you want to take a good group shot, do that,'” Schumacher said. 

The instructions explained how you should use the camera based on factors like weather, lighting, and how far away your subject was.  

“It’s creating a bond with the consumer because it’s talking to them and congratulating them on their purchase, and saying this is really how you can get the most out of the Kodak Brownie, rather than just being a very dry, didactic, technical how-to guide,” Schumacher added.  

Another view of Kodak's Six-20 Brownie Camera.

IKEA furniture

And there are times when instruction manuals can be controversial.

“IKEA is a good example of one that people either tend to love or hate. I think it’s quite polarizing. Some people respond to the very visual approach, because IKEA instruction manuals only have pictures — they have no words at all,” Schumacher said.

Please don't try to climb into your IKEA shelf.

Please don’t try to climb into your IKEA shelf.

A cursory search of “IKEA instruction manuals” on Twitter will yield responses like, “I’m convinced that the IKEA instruction manuals are a troll, and a very effective one” and “#IdPutACurseOn whoever writes those IKEA instruction manuals.”   

But if you have trouble understanding these 2-D black-and-white line drawings, the problem may not lie with the instruction manuals. Instead, they might be highlighting issues with the actual products. 

Paul Ballard — the managing director of 3di, a company that specializes in technical writing — told the BBC that the least popular manuals are ones “where the product itself has fundamentally not quite been designed to its best.”

Harry’s shaving products 

Harry’s — a company that sells razors and shaving equipment — is an example of a business that’s adopted a playfulconversational tone when talking to customers. Like Kodak, the instruction manuals for Harry’s go beyond the functionality of its products and teach customers how to make the most out of them. 

Courtesy of Harry's

Some people turn into Shakespeare when they shave.

Making a personal connection through this instruction  manual just makes good business sense, according to Schumacher. When customers feel good about the products they’ve purchased, they’re more likely to have a positive attitude toward the brand in the future.

“Gently splash cold water on your face and pat dry with a fluffy towel. Then relieve and soothe your skin with a dollop of Post Shave Balm. Give the guy in the mirror a wink. You look great,” Harry’s advises in its manual for a smooth shave.


But as you probably know from the rise of do-it-yourself videos, sometimes the best instructions come from the users themselves.

One of the steps in replacing the battery on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4.

One of the steps in replacing the battery on the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. 

There’s YouTube, of course, and iFixit, “the free repair guide for everything,” which has more than 40,000 manuals.

“A lot of companies, in my opinion, make the error of getting the engineers or product designers to write the instructions. But actually, they know their products too well,” Schumacher said. “You kind of need the consumer, or the end user, to be able to interpret how the instructions need to be written in order to understand how they relate to the piece of machinery or kit or technology.”

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