Tricky guides to new goods

When my son Mateo turned six this week he tore open the paper around his main present and started playing with it immediately.

Monday, 3rd April 2017, 7:30 am
Updated Saturday, 8th April 2017, 10:26 pm

Birthdays were different in the 1980s. Back then anything which needed batteries (which were never included), or used mains power (which sometimes came with the wrong adaptor), would require the careful study of a thick booklet in several languages (one of which you hoped would be English).Instruction manuals were densely typed and contained obscure diagrams. Whatever your shiny new gizmo, there was no escaping the operating manual if you were to have any hope of getting your product to work. And they were universally awful.

The reason for this was quite simple. Instruction manuals in the 1980s were based on interviews with the engineers who designed the products. And that was a terrible idea – engineers were so close to the products they could not put themselves in their customers’ shoes.

Eventually electronics companies realised this and started to employ people whose job was to write manuals normal people could understand. Later they introduced Quick Start Guides which explained only how to do the most important stuff.

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And then some companies like Apple and Bose did something even better by making products so intuitive to use they do not need any instructions, as parents with iPads and toddlers have discovered.

As things have got more user centric in the consumer electronics world, things have gone the other way in the automotive sector.

Last year undercover researchers visited 18 car dealerships to find out how much salespeople knew about the increasingly common automated safety features in the vehicles they were selling. Only six salespeople provided “thorough” explanations, four gave “poor” ones, and two gave dangerously wrong advice. The correct information is no doubt available to read in a hefty owner’s manual, but the existence of website – which helps drivers discover things about their vehicles – suggests in this way at least car manufacturers are stuck in the 1980s.