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Assembly (And Understanding) Required

Vonage In Print News

Assembly (And Understanding) Required
Often-Baffling Instruction Booklets Give Frustrated Users An Unwelcome Workout

December 25, 2004

By Marlon Manuel

The new computers, toy cars, digital cameras and assembly-required furniture are all unwrapped, unsheathed and unboxed. Don't mean to ruin your Christmas — but the next step is to read the owner's manual.


Who decided to make "insert slot A into tab B" — in Taiwanese, no less — required reading when all you want to do is find the "on" button? Why suffer through tales of horror on such a joyous day?

Some companies have heard the cries of agony and produce colorful, easier-to-read, pared-down volumes. But there are still legions of manufacturers publishing manuals as cryptic as Stonehenge, and just as large.

J.W. Wood, a 50-year-old lab tech in Palmetto, once was vexed by a ready-to-assemble computer desk. Pictures didn't match what he had in hand. It was like viewing diagrams for the Statue of Liberty when he was building the Brooklyn Bridge.

"I try to read them, but because so many are so badly written, I don't blame anybody for jumping out at page whatever," Wood said. "Trauma does that to you."

Though they've improved, computer manuals are still so dry and difficult that many people simply don't read them. At Gateway, the company swears that a woman once called the help line asking why her teacup kept slipping out of the computer's cup holder. She clearly hadn't consulted the enclosed literature, or she would have known that her "cupholder" was a CD-ROM tray.

Perhaps manufacturers could take Dave Barry's suggestion on how to make sure people at least glance at the manual — the humor columnist suggested that quickie directions be printed on photos of tennis star Anna Kournikova. Naked.

Impenetrable manuals have become so commonplace that they spawned an entire line of faux manuals, the "For Dummies" series.

Michael Friend, a technical writer in Atlanta, owes his livelihood to the books. "The skills helped me land another job," he said.

But even he — someone who actually understands many manuals — is challenged by some low-tech assembly. That futon he had trouble with, for instance. "It was missing the last page of instructions. But the first page skipped from Step 1 to Step 3, so I'm not sure how helpful Page 3 would have been anyway."

Then there was programming the clock on his RCA television. The manual lacked coherent steps and headings. There were only pictures of the remote control with words that suggested they were directions.

No wonder multitudes of VCRs and microwaves blink 12:00 . . . 12:00 . . . 12:00. It's the universal distress call of owners who have surrendered to their technology. It's a small cry that says, "My Sony is smarter than I am!"
It's that sense of despair that propelled Eddie Hopps, a graphic illustrator, to start Infographics, created to write manuals for other businesses. His tenet: Make the instructions easily understood.

The problem is, those instructions often are an afterthought. At some companies, engineers face pressure-packed deadlines to get a product to market, with design and marketing coming first.

That's where Infographics steps in, designing assembly instructions for pet doors, coat racks and faucets. Hunter fan company and Rubbermaid are among the companies that have turned to Infographics.

"People don't want to read large documents," Hopps said. "We're breaking it down to visuals, with a little bit of copy. This is a true niche for us."

What's really hot, especially for high-tech consumer electronics, is the quick-start guide.

Quick-starts are the Cliffs Notes of owners manuals. Many have only pictures, arrows and numbers. For example:

  • eMachines provides glossy color posters with its computers. Cords and their ports are color-coded. The flowcharts are virtually idiot-proof.

  • Dyson, maker of bagless vacuums, offers hand-held charts showing where attachments click together. The color illustration of wand (B) snapping into hose (A) makes the accompanying words nearly redundant.

  • D-Link, manufacturer of wireless computer cards, includes a guide with screen shots and explicit call-out boxes. The steps are clearly marked, almost mocking in their straightforwardness: "(1) Insert the D-Link CD-ROM Into Your Computer."

Vonage, a company that provides telephone service through an Internet connection, knew it potentially could intimidate the technologically feeble. Indeed, its very nomenclature sends chills down the back of someone who can't figure out where the redial button is. Its niche is Voip — Voice over Internet Protocol.

But the company worked conscientiously to provide clean, explicit instructions for its phone adapter. On a single page, it essentially says plug in two cables, then make your phone call.

"It's not a textbook. It's 'See Spot run,' " said Matt Deatrick, Vonage's vice president for retail channel sales.

The creative team worked with designers throughout the product's development to see how they might present the adapter to consumers. They spent another eight to 10 weeks polishing the documentation.

Because even the best piece of technology or the coolest toy on the block is useless if the buyer can't figure out how it works.

"You confuse them and they call you," Deatrick said. "Or worse, they return your product to the store."

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†AK and HI residents pay $29.95 shipping. ††Limited time offer. Valid for residents of the United States (&DC), 18 years or older, who open new accounts. Offer good while supplies last and only on new account activations. One kit per account/household. Offer cannot be combined with any other discounts, promotions or plans and is not applicable to past purchases. Good while supplies last. Allow up to 2 weeks for shipping. Other restrictions may apply.

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