I have a problem, or at least my husband says I do—not reading directions. That's not to say that I never use directions—if I bought, say, a backyard nuclear reactor, I would probably crack open the manual at least once—but in the general run of things, I am more likely to just start fiddling with the device and see if I can work it out. According to my husband, it's hubris—because I have a technical background, I think I can figure it out.
In some ways, I suppose he's right. Part of training and working as an engineer involves broad experience in practical problem solving. When you’ve spent time building new things and troubleshooting existing ones, trying to work out how to operate a new tool/electronic component/mechanical gadget is less intimidating than it might otherwise be.
From my perspective, though, it's deeper than that. What was it that Newton said, if I've seen further than others it's because I've stood on the shoulders of giants? We're all trained in a common set of principles and techniques. (I would like to say we’re all schooled in a common language, although based on my experience, terminology can get fairly loosey-goosey.) When I open up a new device, whether it's a smart phone or a kitchen faucet, and just dive in, it's not because of hubris. It's because I have faith in engineering as a discipline and a mindset. I have faith in the approach of the designers I’m depending on the likelihood that they chose the cleanest, most intuitive design possible, and that it will be easy for me to follow their reasoning.
Now, I am not saying that this is a foolproof approach. There are times that I do wind up scrabbling around for the instruction book (and there was that incident with the GFCI, but I still swear the contacts were switched). Overall, though, I can usually follow the breadcrumbs of the designers. It's a tribute to the quality of the community that most of the time things work out just fine.
How about you, do you wind up skipping the directions? Does it drive your family crazy? What was your most spectacular misfire?
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I would not normally think to read directions for installing software as it comes with an installer, I am more inclined to look at the directions with a hardware installation or when configuring new software or hardware devices. Oftentimes, when assembling a cabinet or desk I find the directions useless! They are written so badly that I am sure they were translated from some foreign language verbatim. I often times have to resort to my experience in woodworking to really get things together.
That's why it's good to get users involved early. We sometimes get caught up with technology & features and forget the target user (we design for ourselves, so to speak). But getting back to the point of the post, I rarely consult the manual or instructions, unless I know it's at the edge of my knowledge or experience.
An engineer (sometime after Sir Isaac Newton), who probably had to read through "instructions" that were written by someone whose first language was not English; and waded through lawyer-inspired "safety" disclaimers, famously observed: "If I have not seen further than others, perhaps it is because giants are standing on my shoulders..."
I've learned to appreciate the 'help' files that come with certain digital oscilloscopes. And will use Windoze help often (not always accurate) since it does not come with written hardcopy instructions.
However, help files are only as good as the writers/editors. I remember one system where every command in the 'help' started with the word 'To...'. Such as 'To copy...', 'To search...' etc, so of course all entries were indexed under the letter 'T'.
sharps_eng makes an excellent point. I work in healthcare. It's essential to make medical equipment user interfaces highly nurse-intuitive. Their focus is on the patients, not the equipment. They often get a 1/2 hour orientation (if lucky) to new equipment, and operator manuals are usually the first things to disappear.
As a user interface designer I try to use equipment without the instructions to see if the designers got it right. Usually they don't so I live a life of frustration and despair; but I occasionally get to handle an item designed by someone who UNDERSTOOD; controls fall naturally to hand, things are where you expect to find them, and even the occasional tricksy thing is easy to remember. I have come to understand that this is an engineering expression of empathy; you either have it or you haven't.
Sometimes this desire to 'make things better' finds its expression in hidden detail - kit that is easy to service. Its always a pleasure to find a swing-out panel, or a notch in the metalwork allowing a screwdriver to reach an otherwise awkward screwhead. You can bet that Marketing wouldn't have specified that!
I had a great teacher in junior high school that gave a long winded, 100 question test. His only instructions were to read the directons entirely before taking the test. At the end of the directions, was the simple statement: "Answer the last question, put your name at top, and have a good weekend".
Many in the class didn't follow the directions. I still remember the lesson. I like the challenge of disovery, but not at the expense of looking foolish when I've missed something important.
True on the API instructions. I should have clarified that I was talking about not reading directions around home, about things like configuring an iPhone, programming an oven, setting up the electronic eye for a garage door opener, etc. Most of that stuff is so intuitive that reading the directions seems like a waste of time. My dad, also an engineer,is the same way. I figured I had some kindred spirits out there.
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