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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Instructions - Read 'Em and Weep (Or Don't)

(c) 2012 by Tom King

Practically everything you buy, be it a television set, a drill press, a folding lawn chair or a bag of fertilizer, comes with an instruction sheet or, in some cases, a printed manual. Instructions are written by those who engineered the product amd provided in multiple languages so that you, the customer, may follow said instructions and obtain the best results when using their product.

So what do we all do?  We pitch the instructions and just start using whatever it is in whatever manner we think makes sense to us.  Then, we wonder why better than 80% of the stuff we return to the store as "broken" or "damaged" or "non-working" actually still works perfectly.

Manufacturers, software designers and tool-makers have begun to realize that no matter how well something works, no matter how perfectly designed it is, if it doesn't work like people think it's supposed to, the item will fail to sell. I get tons of really neat stuff really cheap from places like Big Lots. They sell stuff that works just fine, but which failed to sell.  I can guess with confidence that the reason the stuff didn't sell, was mostly because it didn't work like people thought it should and nobody bothered to read the instructions or the description on the box.

People live in a mental rut where little independent thought is necessary. I caught my friend sprinkling Miracle-Gro around the bushes in her front flower bed. This is not how Miracle-Gro should be used. It's designed to be dissolved in water.

"I'm going to water it later," she protested. 

So, she's fixing to surround these little freshly trimmed bushes with a water soluble fertilizer in an unknown strength and she didn't read the box to figure out whether this type of fertilizer is even good for those types of bushes. It seemed like it ought to work like she was using it, so she did.  If, later, the bushes shrivel up and die, it will, of course be Miracle-Gro's fault despite the fact that she used the stuff in a manner not recommended by the manufacturer on a plant that may or may not have been the sort of plant Miracle-Gro was designed for. 

She is, however, obeying a principle that a majority of us live by without thinking about it:

Things should work the way I think they ought to.

What engineers are having to do to cope with all this mental sloth is called "intuitive design". Increasingly engineers and designers are striving to create products that we don't have to think about to use. I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing. I think intuitive design will eventually atrophy our brains. If we never have to learn how to use a tool; if we set out televisions down in front of the wall and the cables all snake out the back and automatically plug themselves in; if our cars fill themselves up with gas while changing their own oil and tires; if our cell phones start talking to us like we're three year olds and too stupid to figure out how to call our mama's without prompting, then I weep for the future of mankind.

The phenomenon extends to religion as well. The Catholic Bible Federation did a survey that found that in some countries, fewer than 20 percent of avowed Christians have picked up their Bibles to read them in the past six months. There's a whole species of so-called Christians out there who call themselves by the name of Christ, but actually base their beliefs more on what they see in movies and on television than they do from the original source material.

They just don't bother to read the manual!

It's little wonder so much of what passes for modern Christianity gets its doctrine from Greek mythology, Eastern mysticism, pagan rites and festivals, movie theology and pop psychology.  We have a vague idea that when we die, we spend some time as angels and then get reincarnated - something not found in the Bible, but in an Albert Brooks movie. We believe that when a bell rings an angel gets its wings - Frank Capra 2:3.  We think the Easter bunny comes from the Bible or imagine God is some avuncular old geezer who's not above playing pranks on us to teach us to take care of the planet better, promote cultural diversity or whatever other Hollywood talking point is hot at the time.

It's little wonder so many people reject Christianity. So many Christians have no idea what they believe and those who dislike Christianity see them for the befuddled hypocrites they are. 

Read the manual for cying out loud, people!  Life works the way the designer intended it to, not the way you think it ought to.

Just one man's opinion,



Designing for People Who Have Better Things To Do With Their Lives by Joel Spolsky

Not an Easy Read: Survey Indicates Bible Hard to Understand By Cindy Wooden

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