The Small Thing That Can Kill Great Products

Devices are useless if the instructions can’t teach users how to operate them.

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Episode Transcript:

Take a look at this handy little gadget. It’s a lead acid battery desulfator, and it uses a clever circuit that runs pulsed DC through a lead acid automotive battery to repair the sulfation process that kills them.  
Older automotive mechanics use tricks from mechanical shock, to Epsom salts, to arc welding machines to do something similar, but this little low-cost device, under $30 on Amazon, promises to do the same thing, easily. At least, I think it does.  
Although this unit is well-made and appears to work well, it shipped with a leaflet written in poor English that contains no effective operating instructions in how to use the thing.  
Do I have to remove the battery from the car? Do I have to disconnect one of the terminals? Can I use it while connected to a battery charger? How do I know when the desulfation process is complete?  
The instructions provided answers to none of those questions.  
A quick scan of YouTube didn’t help either, with conflicting instructions from people who are obviously guessing themselves. So, what did I do? I bought a more expensive battery charger with a desulfation function, mainly because it includes an instruction set that gives me clear directions on how to operate it, and what to expect when I do.  
I recently bought a breadmaker, as an interesting experiment in a way to push back against the crazy-high price of a loaf of bread these days, and encountered a similar problem—but in the other direction. Wildly complicated directions full of warnings about what not to do, plus theory about how the device works, but with no actual step-by-step instructions on how to operate the machine.  
Great engineering in consumer goods can be completely destroyed by the inability of technical writers and engineering managers to tell people how to use them. I recently purchased a Google Chromecast device, and it was the exact opposite. Instructions that were short, sweet and critically, contained a quick start user guide.  
The QuickStart guide should be a fundamental part of every instruction set for every engineered product, from an airplane to a toaster. If this is combined with a well-designed user interface—and many user interfaces are very poor today—then you have a winning product.  
One of the beautiful things about toasters is that you don’t require training to use one. Completely intuitive. Two consumer goods that are notoriously difficult to use are appliance timers and smart thermostats. Both these things have an incredible number of functions, but they demand far too much from the user to make them operate well.  

This digital timer is a case in point. I read the instruction manual, and I can make it work, but I have no confidence that it will work reliably because it has no visual indication that it’s doing so. If this was better designed, it would have an on-off button, a digital display for the start time, and a digital display for the end time. Separate displays, always illuminated.  
There are many other examples, but the relentless need to control costs, plus the migration of physical controls to software, has created a menu-driven world where the burden is on the end user to become an expert, rather than the machine doing the work for us, as it should be.  
And don’t even get me started on smart phones. If there is one reason to accept the growth of AI in engineering, it should be to eliminate the need for instruction manuals, because so few people do them well. 

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.