What Does the Decline of the Instruction Manual Signify?

Food for thought from Mark Miodownik, an engineer at Kings College London:

We now live in an age in which we feel that technology should be intuitive, which relegates instruction manuals to literature for the stupid.

In truth, most modern instruction manuals are not worth reading in any case, since they have turned into catalogues of health and safety advice, and instructions on how to dispose of the product once it breaks. We are not expected to spend much time thinking about who made it and how.

Instead, there is inevitably a “quick start” guide which is supposed to get us up and running fast. We are not encouraged to ask how a product works, or figure out how to look after it – and whatever you do don’t open the back, as it will invalidate the warranty.

We now live in a world in which curiosity and care are discouraged, and in which the instruction manual is slowly but inevitably becoming extinct.

Miodownik makes some good points, and I agree that manufacturers generally discourage curiosity. But that’s not the world we live in. As the first commenter points out, many people do take the time to understand how a product works; they just do it buy jumping in and figuring it out. My general impression is we are living in a golden age of technology curiosity and DIYism. We certainly have access to many more resources for figuring out tech products than we did 20 years ago.

But I do think the decline of manufacturer’s manuals points to a growing gap between technophobes and technophiles. If you’re not the sort of person that seeks out information on your own (a nerd, in other words), the default state is total ignorance. When there’s no packaged explanation, there’s no expectation that you should understand your machines. You have to come to that conclusion on your own.

[via Workplace Learning Today]

Textbooks = Explaining Fail?

Seth Godin thinks so:

Textbooks have very little narrative. They don’t take you from a place of ignorance to a place of insight. Instead, even the best marketing textbooks surround you with a fairly non-connected series of vocabulary words, oversimplified problems and random examples.

I agree that textbooks of this sort fall flat on their faces, and it sounds like textbook standards have slipped considerably. But I firmly stand by the idea of a textbook. To me a single volume that takes you from zero knowledge to thorough understanding is invaluable. Popular nonfiction publishers are less likely to approach subjects that way, because it can result in hard-to-market doorstop-sized behemoths.

But I also like Godin’s alternative proposal:

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?) When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you’re done.

Explaining Makes You More Persuasive

And research shows even a terrible explanation does the trick.

From Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive:

“Because” makes any explanation rational. In a line to Kinko’s copy machine a researcher asked to jump the line by presenting a reason “Can I jump the line, because I am in a rush?” 94% of people complied. Good reason, right? Okay, let’s change the reason. “Can I jump the line because I need to make copies?” Excuse me? That’s why everybody is in the line to begin with. Yet 93% of people complied. A request without “because” in it (”Can I jump the line, please?”) generated 24% compliance.

New Explaining Tool… Not Explained So Well

I saw on Workplace Learning Today that Microsoft has launched Semblio, a new tool for creating snazzy video/animation/text-loaded interactive educational content. The Semblio landing page has an intriguing animated spiel that invited me to give Semblio spin to make a bouncy “truly individual learning experience.”


Semblio example

It sounded like a grand old time to me, so I clicked the link to the Semblio blog, hoping to learn how one would actually do this, but got a Page Not Found page. Then I clicked on “How Does Semblio Work,” which led to a more enlightening demo video, as well as this mystifying word blob:

Using Microsoft Semblio, you can create rich, immersive multimedia learning material that’s highly interactive and fosters exploratory learning that teachers can customize, and that promotes collaboration. Because Semblio takes a platform approach to content creation —- leveraging the flexibility of the Microsoft .NET Framework —- it works across software, services, and learning management systems. This allows you to meet the demand for more customized solutions, while still providing you with control over how your material is adapted.

Run-ons and non-sequitors and business-speak, oh my!

Anyway, I eventually figured out that Semblio in its current incarnation is a software development kit (SDK) only, meaning .Net developers can work with it at the moment, but not me. By early next year, the Microsoft Office application suite should include content creation tools for the rest of us. This Read Write Web post explains that this may be a big step for electronic textbooks:

In their current state, electronic textbooks are often relatively static versions of their physical counterpart, with maybe a few videos thrown in for good measure. As these electronic textbooks are slowly making a push into the textbook market, tools like Semblio should allow publishers and teachers to create interactive textbooks that actually fulfill the promise of the medium instead of just recreating the traditional textbook experience in the digital world.

Could be pretty neat, as long as Microsoft can explain it to users by then.

[via Workplace Learning Today]

If It Looks Difficult, It is Difficult…

… according to a new study from two psychologists at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, anyway.

This Scientific American article describes their elegant experiment to see how people react when something “feels” difficult. They presented two different groups of college students with printed instructions for a regular exercise routine. While the wording was the same in both sets of instructions, one group received instructions printed in a hard-to-read Brush font (a font that looks like brush strokes) while the other group received instructions printed in good ol’ fashioned Arial.

The results were crystal clear. People who received Arial instructions were more enthusiastic about the exercise routine than the Brush font folks, and predicted it would be much easier. The psychologists tried the experiment again using a sushi roll recipe and saw similar results.

From the article:

Apparently the students’ brains mistook the ease of reading about exercise for the ease of actually doing push-ups and crunches, and this misunderstanding motivated them to think about a life change. Those who struggled through the Japanese brushstrokes had no intention of heading to the gym; the reading alone tired them out.

There you have it — scientific evidence that when you’re explaining something, even peripheral confusion can make the content of your message seem more complicated.

[via Workplace Learning Today]

Vintage Hate for Corporate Speak

On Writing Well, William Zinsser’s excellent classic writing guide, has a great chapter on the pitfalls of institutional writing. My copy is the 1982 edition, but it reads like it’s hot off the blogosphere:

But just because people work for an institution they don’t have to write like one. Institutions can be warmed up. Administrators and executives can be turned into human beings. Information can be imparted clearly and without pompous verbosity. It’s a question of remembering that readers identify with people, not with abstractions like “profitability,” or with Latinate nouns like “utilization” and “implementation,” or with passive-verb constructions in which nobody can be visualized doing something (“pre-feasibility studies are in the paperwork stage”)

Zinsser refers to even older hate, George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” To make his point, Orwell took this famous passage from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, no yet riches to men of understanding, no yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

and institutionalized it:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account”

Most of the chapter describes Zinsser’s adventures teaching a roomful of school principals to stop sending incomprehensible, “formal” notices home to parents. Good stuff.

Zinsser concludes the chapter with an earnest plea, which I enthusiastically second:

“If you work for an institution, whatever your job, whatever your level, be yourself when you write. You will stand out as a real person among the robots…”

Economic Meltdown Scapegoat #87: Jargon

It would be a huge stretch to blame our current economic troubles entirely on jargon, but it did play a part.

I’m thinking specifically about the mortgage bubble. I’ve brought three houses, and every time, I was overwhelmed by the unnecessarily cryptic language involved. The vast majority of people who buy and sell houses aren’t lawyers or mortgage brokers, yet all the paperwork seems designed to mystify any non-expert.

And of course, it partly is. If you can confuse somebody, it will be easier to talk them into giving you more money. The Truth in Lending Act requires lenders to provide the buyer with the terms of the loan, but, through the power of jargon, they can make that disclosure murky and intimidating. (If you’ve never been through the home-buying wringer, check out this glossary to see what I mean.)

In short, the baffling language of loans helped create an environment where many home buyers feel like they have no prayer of making sense of it all, so they just have to take an expert’s word for it. In most cases, the nearest experts are the mortgage broker and the real estate age, both of whom have (or rather, had) an economic incentive in buyers borrowing more money than is prudent.

You see similar problems in other industries. Crooked mechanics spew enough ominous car jargon that you just pay the bill to make it all go away. Mediocre programmers turn on the tech talk to explain away glitches to their non-techy clients and coworkers. Hurried doctors hurl perplexing medical terms to push you toward their preferred course of treatment.

Jargon isn’t inherently bad, of course. Among experts, it makes communication much more efficient. But more often than not, jargon that spills out into the world of non-experts is repressive. People use it as a tool to tip others off balance and make them feel small. And even if you’re not the devious sort, it’s easy to do this accidentally unless you check your jargon levels vigilantly.

(While on this subject of mortgages, let me be the zillionth explaining nerd to point to “The Giant Pool of Money” from This American Life)

Explanatory Filenames

Here’s an Andy-Rooneyish pet peeve: filenames and subject lines that don’t take the intended audience into account.

Do you know what I hate?

For example, let’s say you’re responding to a request for proposal (RFP) for a project called The Annihilatrix. What filename do you choose for your proposal when you email it to the potential client?

In my experience, even some big agencies will call it Annihilatrix_Proposal.pdf or something similar. If you’re working on proposals for multiple possible clients, this is a logical way to keep track of all of them. But think about the guy on the other end who receives proposals from 10 different candidates on the deadline day, all with the same filename. The first thing he has to do is rename each of them. If you’re thinking about your audience, you’d save the proposal with your company’s name in the filename — e.g. TomCo-Annihilatrix_Proposal.pdf.

There are many such opportunities for better explanations in business. For example, the subject line “Marketing Plan” isn’t very helpful if you’re emaling the head of the marketing department. She might be dealing with a dozen marketing plans for different projects.

Practicing good explanation even in the small matters can really make life easier for your oh-so-busy colleagues. Pay it forward.

Touristic Usability

Khoi Vinh over at The Subtraction Blog has a great new post about “touristic usability.” His basic notion is that an entire city is comparable to an application, and should be intuitive like a good application. As he puts it, “given any new city, there are certain things that should be easy for tourists to comprehend without assistance.”

This is an excellent point, and the way Vinh presents it, it seems so completely obvious. But most big cities I’ve been to do a pretty poor job of explaining themselves and are rife with complicated procedure and jargon. This is really weird, when you consider how much money big cities dump into promoting tourism. Vinh gives a good example of the consequences of bad touristic usability:

To call anyone anywhere from these phones [in Paris], you must possess a calling card, which must be bought at newsstands or other convenience vendors. But I had no way of intuiting that from any of the instructional signage presented with the pay phones, and no guidebook, and therefore no other recourse. It was supremely frustrating and had the feeling of a tremendous gap in someone’s municipal planning. For me in that moment, it reflected poorly — on all of Paris, not necessarily on the Parisian telecommunications infrastructure alone.

As an explainist, I mostly agree. But I do think a certain amount of unexplained usability weirdness in a city is good, since it adds character and gives locals the home court advantage.

Your Math Teacher Was Right About Units

Remember how silly it seemed when your fourth grade math teacher
insisted you always include units next to numbers that describe real world things? …Like 10 inches instead of just 10, or 30 days instead of 30. Showing early signs of the smartass I was to develop in to, I always thought, “This is totally unnecessary. Of course I’m going to remember what it is, I’m the one who wrote it.”

That’s all fine when you’re doing a homework assignment, but when you’re trying to communicate information to someone who may not be in the same room as you, data is flat and useless without units(and context). It’s bad explanation practice.

Case in point: Look at this graph that’s included in my water bill each month:

Atlanta Water Bill

What the heck is a CCF? What do the water usage habits of others look like? What can this graph tell me? I suppose just knowing how I’m using water month-to-month is better than nothing, but if you’re going to go to the trouble to include this chart the least you could do is tell me what a “CCF” is. I can’t imagine most average citizens can make any meaning out of that abbreviation. Also, based on things like temperature and seasonality, I’m sure my water needs differ from month to month. How about helping me account for that? And what would be super-awesome is if you’d give me some frame of reference for my data. Am I a total water slob or a miser? What are some ways I could work on this? How will I know next month if I’m doing better?