How Instruction Manuals Can be Instructive

 Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals have evolved into online documents, videos and infomercials, but the evolutionary process has underscored some basic communications principles, such as Kodak’s Brownie camera instructions on how to load the film – and to shoot great pictures

Instruction manuals are supposed to explain how something works or how to assemble something. The thought of an instruction manual induces dread in many people, but their evolution offers useful clues for today’s challenge of showing people what you mean.

 Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

Inventor James Watt paved the way for modern instruction manuals – and communications – by gluing simple, sequential instructions on his ingenious document copier. Simple, clear and accessible remains as byways to effective communications.

According to Helene Schumacher, writing for the BBC, the first instruction manual was created by inventor James Watt, who advanced steam engine technology in the 1800s. Watt’s instruction “manual” was for his early, but effective document copier. His instructions were simple steps – take a sheet of paper with damp ink, put it on top of a blank sheet of paper, wrap it in a blanket and push it through the rollers. Watt glued the instructions to his copier.

Simple and easy to find – characteristics that still hold true for visual communications today.

Instruction manuals have proliferated in direct proportion to the number of new machines for industry and gadgets for households. Some are very technical and some are meant to make technical information easy to understand by non-technical people. Eventually, we evolved to instruction manuals explaining all the technology on our cars and how to assemble Swedish-made furniture.

People with some gray in their hair remember when instruction manuals were mostly all text. Often gobs and pages of text. Over time, instructions come as a set of sequential illustrations and, more recently, as videos. Even when there is text, it is written to be understood and not like a test question for an engineering student.

Printed instruction manuals have given way to online versions. Many instructions now follow Watt’s example of being integrated into a product so you can see them as you work.

Instead of being technical or procedural, instructions are often combined with recommendations for how to use a product. In her article, Schumacher cites the instructions that accompanied Kodak’s Brownie camera. It explained how to load film in the camera as well as hared tips on how to take a great picture.

You could view Kodak’s instruction as a form of branding. For years, Apple’s advertising for its Mac computers, iPhones and iPads have featured what you can do with their devices more than showcase their features. Interestingly, Apple doesn’t provide instruction manuals because it doesn’t want you fooling around with what it makes.

More complicated devices have led to more complicated instructions. However, product developers have taken steps to reduce the complications through design, which requires less complicated instructions.

Making instructions more user friendly is not just related to customer satisfaction; it also has become part of the consumer journey to buy products. People go online to check out a product before they purchase it.

Technology advances are influencing instruction manuals. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are coming into use in ways that meld instruction with initial experience of a product. QR codes are being integrated with instruction manuals so you can quickly find the information you need without thumbing through pages or scrolling online.

Just about every instruction manual innovation mirrors communications best practices – simplified design, relevant information, visual explanations, online versatility, technologically savvy, customer friendly.

Who would have thought instruction manuals could reveal the qualities of effective communications.

Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.