Image of the original Macintosh user manual, taken from Peter Merholz’s Flickr account under creative commons

Write the f*cking manual

As a User Experience person, I was brought up to despise the RTFM approach (Read The F*cking Manual). According to user-centered design methodology, if you have to accompany your product with a manual, you didn’t design a very good interface. Go back to the sketching board and try again.

In 2013, I worked on one of EverythingMe’s internal systems, dubbed Maestro. Maestro had to be re-designed and get a plethora of new features. At the same time, we grew our content team, and had to put dozens of content editors to work ASAP. The re-designed Maestro carried some of the old design’s flaws, and the new design didn’t get the ideal amount of user testing before we deployed it. Needless to say that for me, much was left to be desired.

“No! The interface should be effortlessly usable and self-explanatory!”. But then I realized that this can take months, and we need to train new employees now

A few weeks after deploying the new version, I was asked to write a manual for new employees, explaining how to use the system. Being instinctively repulsed by the request, I tried first to dodge that bullet. I said things like: “No! The interface should be effortlessly usable and self-explanatory!”. But then I realized that this can take months, and we need to train new employees now. A manual might be the most cost-efficient way to bridge the gaps.

So I sat down and started writing. I started with laying down the workflow the manual has to explain, and then moved on to explain each step of the way.

I think I’m onto something

As I was writing the manual, something amazing happened. I suddenly realized that explaining how the product works is a greeeeeat usability problem finder. It became so vividly clear which parts are easy and obvious — the parts that I explained fluently without even noticing — and which parts are tricky or suffer from bad usability — the parts that I struggled writing and had to take a break to think through. “I never realized this activity requires so many redundant actions” and “this is working just right” were some of my reactions. Holy shit! I think I’m onto something!

It took me almost 2 days to finish the first, 9-page long draft. I ended up with a much better understanding of the user’s workflow, with all its pain points and barriers, and a list of ideas for improvements and new features. While watching real users using your product is still the best way to identify usability results, writing the f*cking manual can create better user empathy and a solid base for future improvements. And who knows, someone might even read it.

So next time you’re working on a new product or feature, give WTFM a try.


Originally published at geeks.everything.me on March 4, 2013.

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