(Associated Press Reprint – originally published December 24, 2004)
DUNCAN MANSFIELD, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Some assembly required. It’s the consumer’s lament, the do-it-yourselfer’s Everest, the bane of parents lost in a sea of toy parts and diagrams on Christmas morning. “It’s amazing how many people see that as a warning label,” said Jim Kughler, vice president and general manager at Infographics. “We are trying to change that mindset.” The small graphic design company in Knoxville has found a growing market helping manufacturers like Rubbermaid, Maytag, Moen, Hunter Fan and Skil Power Tools improve what’s known as “post-purchase communications.” In other words, building a better instruction manual — a logically written and well-illustrated flyer or booklet that tells a consumer how to assemble, use and maintain a product.
With four Christmas bikes to build for his four children under 10, Robert Smith of Rockford, Ill., lamented, “The instruction manuals were crazy. How do they expect people to understand this (stuff)?” Rich Goldsmith, a single dad in Minneapolis, noticed some companies put more effort into manuals than others. lowes-sample “Mattel and Hasbro, for example, are excellent, as are Legos,” he said. “Conversely, instructions for putting bikes together make you want to jab yourself in the eye with the Allen wrench the company was thoughtful enough to include.”
Part of the challenge in developing good instruction books is the language barrier when a product is made overseas. But even in English, it’s hard to decode engineer-speak and legalese. “The term ‘counterclockwise’ isn’t necessarily an intuitive thing for people,” said Rob Eddy, Infographics vice president of marketing whose background is in product development. “We are trying to look at this from the consumer’s perspective,” Eddy said. “We are walking them through it and breaking it down as simply as we can,” said Eddie Hopps, president of Infographics’ parent company, Hopps Communications Inc. Frequently, that will be through sequential drawings — not photographs — with as few words as possible, distilled from assembling and disassembling the products themselves in the company’s basement workshop.
New York marketing law expert Linda Goldstein said manufacturers are taking instruction manuals more seriously. “I think the more current trend is to make the instruction manuals more consumer friendly, and actually invoke some creative juices to almost use them as an additional piece of marketing material,” said Goldstein, chairman of the Promotion Marketing Association. Jonathan Blum, a contributor to high tech-focused SYNC magazine, said instruction manuals “are rivaled only by the TV remote control as the poorest executed item in all of consumer electronics.” But he doesn’t blame the little books entirely. “Most people don’t read. Most products are really complicated. (And) most consumers are busy. They can’t be bothered to figure anything out,” he said. A study in the journal Pediatrics last year suggested child safety seats in cars are often installed wrong because the manuals were written at a 10th-grade reading level while nearly a quarter of U.S. adults read at or below the fifth-grade level.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission offers tips in its Winter 2004 newsletter about how to write manuals.
“Consumers may use your product in ways you did not intend,” the newsletter advises manufacturers, urging them to provide explicit warnings for all real and potential safety hazards. But even when nothing is wrong with a product, poorly prepared instruction guides can result in a high volume of product returns or calls to tech-support help lines. And so companies are waking up to the need for better manuals. “This is becoming a more important part of marketing,” Eddy said. “Where it used to be considered a necessary evil and an afterthought, I think more and more companies … are seeing the importance of doing this correctly.” Meanwhile, in a small move to reassure consumers, he said, “You will see less and less of that ‘Some Assembly Required’ on packages. Now you see more of, ‘Easy as 1-2-3.’” That would be a great comfort indeed for the veterans who have fumbled with manuals, sometimes in the wee hours of Christmas morning.
“We bought a rocking horse and all that needed to be done was attach the horse’s legs to the rocking base. It took two people 30 minutes,” recalled Robyn Eckard, mother of an 18-month-old in Mira Loma, Calif.
“I can’t even talk about it without my muscles tensing up.”