We Need Manual

Andy Ihnatko, Macworld
24 June, 2011
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Macs and iPods and iPhones and iPads – I think that’s about everything – are marvelously easy to set up and use. That’s a signature point of pride and it’d be true even if non-Apple gear didn’t make you wonder just what kind of longstanding grudge its designers have against humanity.

(Do keep in mind that I review lots of hardware from all manufacturers. If a phone is badly-designed, I surmise that it was designed by someone whose parents once accidentally left him or her behind at a petrol station during a long family car trip. I imagine that the person who designed this printer I tried recently, which required the MAC address of any computer that intended to work with it, was left behind deliberately, locked inside a steamer trunk with all of the address labels peeled off.)

Apple hardware just plain works. You unpack it from the most minimally-sized box imaginable, you attach a cable or two, you push a button and you’re off and running. There’s absolutely no need to spend any time reading and laboriously underlining parts in a thick manual. Why, Apple’s so customer-oriented that they  even try to help you avoid that time-wasting activity by not including a manual with the product to begin with.

OK, that’s not precisely true but I’ve spent so much time with this stuff that I’ve never really bothered to rummage through the box and see what else is in there. My new MacBook Pro came with a little squarebound book that walks the new user through at least the basics of setup, usage, troubleshooting and upgrades. Good. But new iPods and iPhones are a different story. They come with far more printed words explaining how Apple is not legally required to repair the device if it’s been inside the user’s mouth for more than a certain fixed amount of time than words that actually explain how to use the things.

Many of my friends and family members have jumped on board the Mac and iOS bandwagon in the past year and the experience has forced me to try to look at these familiar devices through the eyes of the uninitiated. I’m a little bit surprised by all of the questions I’ve been fielding. Email doesn’t work and they can’t search for messages. The camera took a picture when it wasn’t supposed to. The screen doesn’t respond to taps.

“The screen doesn’t respond to taps?”


“No matter what app you’re running?”

“No matter what. The only buttons that work are the clicky-ones, not the ‘touch’ ones. It’s OK, I’m just going to return it. I know you like the iPhone, but I don’t think it’s really for me.”

(Here, I walk my cousin through a load of diagnostic steps so I can work out just what the phone’s doing…)

The conversation ended with a successful diagnosis and fix. She’s getting along just fine with her new iPhone, now that she understands that she needs to tap the screen with the fleshy part of her finger and not the fingernail.

That’s an extreme instance, I know. But others were perfectly within the nominal spectrum of newbie confusion and after flipping through the little pamphlets that come with this computer I could see why these folks got so confused.

Apple needs to beef things up. Part of the problem is simply one of packaging. Apple product packaging is a miracle of minimalism. One can only imagine the frustrations that their package designers feel when they’re trying to find a way to lose another five millimeters and someone in the room moans for the nth time that they could make this box much, much smaller if they just left out the actual product.

The solution is for Apple to be much more aggressive with their digital documentation. Many of my Apple inductees were (a) grateful and (b) surprised when they clicked the http://support.apple.com/manuals/ URL I emailed them. Behold: thorough, clear and well-produced manuals for just about everything, in easy-to-download PDF form.

But these materials just don’t go far enough…and a new user (who, you’ll recall, kept tapping at the Mail icon with a false acrylic nail tip) can’t really be expected to locate, download and open these files.

Instead, Apple should take all of that work off the user’s hands. Remember, an iDevice doesn’t do anything until it’s been hooked up to iTunes. That initial setup is the perfect time for iTunes to play a little welcoming video and explicitly ask the user if they’d like iTunes to automatically download and install a complete library of training and instruction materials for their new device.

Apple’s iOS devices are supposed to be tops for experiencing all kinds of media. Why not bring that point home by having new users take all of their instruction via the same device they’re trying to master?

It’s good for the users, it’s good for the users’ more-experienced friends and relatives and it’s good for Apple. Every possible user experience is an opportunity for Apple to remind the customer how smart they are to put their faith in this company on an ongoing basis. And learning is a fundamental part of the user experience.

It’s also an opportunity remind the world that Apple’s just as good at producing educational materials as they are at making hardware and software. Check out the library of Final Cut Express tutorials available at http://www.apple.com/finalcutexpress/tutorials/. These clear, quick videos took a frustrated former iMovie user who couldn’t even figure out how to join two film clips via a transition and turned me into a Final Cut user whose sole limitations are his total lack of insight or talent about how to effectively communicate a story through video.

Apple should produce the same kinds of videos for every product in the whole line…and they should make it harder for a new user to not encounter them than for them to remain frustrated and unaware. And video instruction is far more effective than a written manual. I can tell you all of the steps for injecting heroin. Why? Because I’ve seen it done on TV shows and movies dozens of times.

One of the very first Mac commercials illustrated the new computer’s simplicity and user-friendliness by dropping the multiple looseleaf manuals that you got with an IBM PC onto a table (THUNK!) followed by the trifling spiral-bound thing you got with a Mac (…plap!).

It is indeed a point of pride that a device made by Apple is easy to use. But Apple shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to offer a new user more instruction than he or she might need. If anything, it’d be yet another tangible expression of Apple’s key covenant with its users: “We’re on your side, here.”

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