Instructions not included

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When my youngest son Mateo turned six this week he tore open the wrapping paper around his main present and started playing with it immediately.

Birthdays were different in the 1980s. Back then anything that needed batteries (which were never included), or that used mains power (which sometimes came with the wrong adaptor), would require the careful study of a thick booklet in several languages (one of which you hoped would be English).

Instruction manuals were densely typed and contained obscure diagrams. Whether your shiny new gizmo was a Casio watch or a Sony Walkman, a Philips VHS player or a Sinclair computer, there was no escaping the operating manual if you were to have any hope of getting your product to work. And they were almost universally awful.

The reason for this was quite simple. Instruction manuals in the 1980s were based on interviews with the engineers who designed the products. And that was a terrible idea – the engineers were so close to the products they could not put themselves in their customers’ shoes.

Eventually consumer electronics companies realised this was a problem, and they started to employ people whose job was to write manuals normal people could understand. Later they introduced Quick Start Guides that explained only how to do the most important stuff.

And then some companies like Apple, Nest and Bose did something even better by making products that are so intuitive to use they do not need any instructions, as parents around the world with iPads and toddlers have discovered.

As things have got more user centric in the consumer electronics world things have gone the other way in the automotive sector.

Last year undercover researchers from MIT visited 18 car dealerships to find out how much salespeople knew about the increasingly common automated safety features in the vehicles they were selling. Only six salespeople provided “thorough” explanations, four gave “poor” ones, and two gave dangerously wrong advice.

The correct information is no doubt available to read in a hefty owner’s manual, but the existence of a popular American website called – which helps drivers discover things about their own vehicles – suggests in this way at least car manufacturers are stuck in the 1980s.

This post originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian where I write a weekly column.

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