Any product that needs a manual to work is broken? No!

Have you seen quotes like this around the web?


Well I am here to tell you to think carefully about these quotes.

Don Norman makes an important distinction in this quote from the Design of Everyday Things:

“When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even a one-word manual—then it is a failure.” – Don Norman

I want to say that I believe Dr. Dray would offer more nuance to her above quotes if I asked her. I picked her quote only as it was easily found on UX / HCI quote website found through Google. (Fun Fact: Dr. Susan Dray is well know for rapping during her talks at CHI. She makes handmade bracelets in her spare time and loves giving them out to anyone that asks.)

When things are simple, a door, a shower, a simple mobile game, they could be said to be a failure of design if they require a manual to understand or use, however, this is not the case for a lot of more complex tasks / products.

Imagine if we said the design of piano was a failure simply because it takes hours of careful practice to learn to use effectively. Know what else takes some skill, practice, and instructions to use… our favourite everyday interaction devices, the keyboard and mouse.

If you ever get a chance to see someone use these devices for the first time you would be amazed.

Instructor: “Lets start by pointing the mouse to the folder on the screen”.

Student: Picks up mouse and touches screen with it.

The keyboard on the other hand takes hours of practice to use well and often contains many poorly labeled function keys. Why do we keep using such complex input devices over simpler ones? Because once you learn how to use them they are very functional, accurate, and fast to use.

When designing software for power users or complex tasks simple is not always best. 

While less is often more, when it comes to software sometimes more is more. Don’t be afraid to take some risks when designing software, sometimes something that takes some skill and time to learn will be more useable in the long run.

Also published on Medium.

One thought on “Any product that needs a manual to work is broken? No!

  1. The key distinction is expert vs. novice performance. For experts, especially in routine tasks, efficiency can be substantially more important than learnability. At CMU, they did a ton of research on the Model Human Processor to quantify efficiency. Bonnie John who was the Director of the MHCI program years ago spearheaded Cogtool (along with many students, some folks from NASA Ames Research Center, and probably others) which was a way to take an interface and predict exactly how long it would take an expert to perform a task–and optimize from there.

    Now if you are talking about a loan application or checkout experience, learnability and innate intuitiveness are probably more important. Ditto disaster avoidance–e.g. nuclear reactor interface–design. All depends on the situation.

    Sometimes, interfaces will weave together highly intuitive versions of a design (e.g. visual toolbars) with accelerators designed for power-users (e.g. keyboard shortcuts). In those cases, the trick is to enable novice users to perform their tasks while educating them on the more efficient ways of doing the same things.

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