Who’s in the driver’s seat — icons or instructions?

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One of my favorite places to learn about technology is at the Flea Market. I find generations of typewriters, cameras, and hand-powered coffee mills displayed side by side on the tables, and I can instantly understand how they work just by looking at them. Then I think about the last technology purchase I made, and how long it took me to ‘get the hang of it.’

I believe we’ve lost the art of describing what things do and how to work with them. Instead we have flashy images, tons of icons, and lots of references to YouTube videos. Our instruction manuals are full of marketing sizzle with no steak.

My most recent flea market purchase is a box of cameras from the 1950s. They’re heavy and mechanical, definitely too big to fit in my purse… however… (picture the sun rising over the mountains here) they have instructions printed right on the insides of the cameras. There are arrows and everything. Even now, sixty years later when the film for the cameras doesn’t even exist, I understand exactly how they were supposed to work. Could the same be said for the iPhone? A tablet PC?

The lost art of instruction

I am convinced there are hundreds of thousands of technology consumers who have simply given up because they don’t understand how to synch the SMTP configuration of their smart phone to their Internet host provider. Now that I write it out I have to say that it sounds a little complicated to me too.

As technology becomes more abstract and ‘cloud like,’ the instruction manuals for how to interact with and reap the benefits of these technologies have turned into comic books. The instructions are less illustrative than instructions for IKEA furniture. Come ON.

Consumers are hungry for DIY instruction manuals that will actually tell them step by step how to get their technology to perform as promised in the marketing literature. My husband has had a Droid for three years and still hasn’t figured out how to synch his calendar because he can’t find instructions that get him all the way through the process. Where are the instructions? Does everything have to be learned via Google searches now?

ICONS — the devil in disguise

Do people really understand icons? I think they’re very helpful for those who have been using icons for years, but for first time users they’re a little patronizing. Users get really stressed when they’re trying to set up a new device. An icon of a smiling face could be interpreted as “click me to contact support” or “take a photo” or “finish transaction.” Wouldn’t it be great if there was an instruction manual that came with the device to tell you what the smiling face icon is for? Instead we just have to click it, realize it’s the wrong thing, and then spend several frustrating minutes trying to get back to the original menu.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned

I’ve been told by graphic designers that if icons are clear enough, then printed instructions aren’t necessary. REALLY? A device the size of a 3X5 card that manages email, calendar, calculators, synchronizes accounts in real time, opens and stores attachments, takes photos, and performs a thousand other tasks can be completely navigated from scratch by a new user just by looking at icons?

And don’t get me started on what happens on the support hotline. No really, don’t get me started.

Business advice

Companies developing software, or really any products that could use a little instruction, can take advantage of a major competitive advantage by providing good instructions and support. I know that consumer questions can be overwhelming, but the profit to be gained from taking these phone calls or printing a few extra pages of instructions will be overwhelming as well.

We can read, and we want to use products correctly. Please help us get from here to there.

Marci De Vries is president of MDV Interactive, a web consulting firm in Baltimore. Reach her at marci@mdvinteractive.com.