Tuesday, 28 July 2009

What happened to instructions?

Have you noticed how nothing needs intructions any more? When you turn on a new mobile phone for the first time, it gives you a little tutorial on how to use everything and I can't think of a successful web application that needs an instruction manual. Facebook or Google Mail with instructions? The idea is ridiculous, but that doesn't mean you can't do a hell of a lot with them.

I'm an occasionally keen photographer, but as much as I like my new compact, it's got features that you can only understand if you read the instructions. They're not intuitive and so I don't use them. Full auto works, so full auto it is.

Media software is being left behind in this new world. Our agency's timesheet system is so complicated that you need to be shown how to use it, which is a farce (thanks again DDS.) If you've ever tried to get TV ratings from Nielsen Addynamix or MMS, then you'll know that working it out for yourself is hard. Why? It's not like you're trying to do anything difficult. Pick an ad or a programme; pick an audience; show me the ratings. Not difficult.

We don't need instructions any more because we've learned the rules. I know I can right click things to get options, so I try it. I know what save buttons do. When we build software and dashboards, it's essential to build on that existing knowledge that users have - to put menus where the user expects to find them. This means an intuitive understanding of how people work and then a lot of user testing.

Where I don't know the rules, I need instructions. A mechanic can service my car with just a toolbox but I need a toolbox and a Haynes manual and a lot more time. And then a mechanic to fix the mess I've made, because I've got no experience. Making up new rules so that you need a manual is a serious undertaking - is what you're building important enough to junk all that built up experience and make users learn a new way of working? Really?

I'm applying a new principle to the dashboards, spreadsheets and tools that we build for clients: The ten minute demo. If you can't work out for yourself how to use everything after a ten minute demo, then it's too complicated. You might learn a lot of new things after that demo, but it should be straightforward enough that you can work them out for yourself with a minumum of effort.

As a rule, if it needs instructions or training, then it's too complicated.

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