This is a visual study on a series of user guides/manuals/instructions to define how visual elements may help user to understand and more effectively use a product. At the end of the study, I hope to be able to summarize some principles or tips of user guide visualization and design.
The first manual is called The M16A1 Rifle: Operation and Preventive Maintenance, or officially known as DA Pam 730-30, the reason I chose this manual is not only because it fits my personal interest but also because of the special technic used to make this manual. The main content of the cover of the DA Pam 730-30 is a comic strip of two soldiers in a fight, however, the solid black captions with Arial font text and the Army publication number by the upper right corner tells us this is not a comic book. Another clue that makes this manual unusual is the lack of color, while the silver age comics tend to have very bright colors, the manual is mainly printed in black and white with different shades of tan and brown, making the rifle printed in bright orange very standing out. The lack of color indicates that the publisher intended to keep the cost low. On the second page of the manual, there is a very suggestive and personified title with a girl dressed in bright orange holding a M16 rifle. And a series of panels explaining how to field strip a M16A1 rifle, in each panel, the part being mention is printed in the same bright orange.
With a little background research, you will know this manual was originally published in June 1968 then revised in July 1969 and was sent to soldiers in Vietnam, at the time, US Army was officially adopting the M16 series rifles to replace the old M14 rifles. While the replacement happened in the middle of the war, most of the soldiers were never trained with a M16 rifle back in the states; and rumors say that some of the soldiers were provided false information about the rifle as the M16 was not developed by the Army and some people in the Army wanted it to preform badly in order to keep their jobs. Eager to find a way to pass the correct information about the rifle to individual soldiers, the Army hired Will Eisner, a famous comics artist to design a manual that the soldiers, as young as 16 years old at the time, would love to read by themselves. And Eisner ended up creating DA Pam 730-30. Comparing to the similar manual published in 1970, it is not hard to see which one young soldiers would prefer to read.
By visually analyzing DA Pam 730-30 and comparing it with another manual, we can learn a couple of things: first is to design the manual according to the user profile of the product or sometimes specifically the manual. A bad example of this is a Kenner brand Batman Batmobile toy manual. The instructions in this manual are mostly word specific; the illustrations are rather hard to understand without reading the texts even for adults; while the toy is supposed be designed for children as young as 4 years old. You may argue that the children’s parents may read the manual for them, however, that may not always be the case.
Another thing we learned from studying the M16A1 manual is that without significantly increasing the cost of the manual, a color can help clarify the content by highlighting a specific part. There are different ways to achieve this effect. For example, in the Owner’s Manual for Dyson brand DC07 vacuum cleaner, designers used realistic color for the illustrations of the vacuum; and then highlighted specific parts by decolorizing and transparentizing other parts in the illustrations. However, designers should be very careful when using realistic colors in the user manuals, as it may cause confusion when the product is offered in more than one color configuration.
Finally, Will Eisner also used the technique of X-Ray vision and cut out image to allow us to see through the bolt carrier of the M16A1 rifle, and have a better understanding of what we are supposed to do in terms of cleaning the gas key attached to the bolt carrier. This kind of technique can also be found in the user manuals of many commercial products, including the IKEA furniture manual I am about to review.
The IKEA assembly instruction for Bestå Burs TV units I analyzed is designed to be Minimalist matching the over style of the IKEA brand. The second page is a warning section illustrated in a comic style without any text, a large cross is used to indicates wrong practices. Page 3 and 4 are a complete list of what included in the package, different parts are labeled only with Arabic numerals; each individual part is illustrated in a technical drawing style with different overall scale but accurate aspect ratio; and was illustrated from a most recognizable point of view. From page 5, the assembly instruction begins, all the parts on the same page are illustrated in the same scale with enlarged details in speech balloons; and from an angle people possibly work from. When one of the two parts with similar appearances is being used, both parts will be showed with the wrong part crossed with a large X and distinguished with part numbers.
Form analyzing this manual, we learned that a product’s manual should have the same overall designed style of the product. Another company tends to have matching style manuals is Apple; their manuals have the same visual elements as their websites and packages. Also, Apple is one of the few companies that use photos of the product in the user manual without having the manuals look cheaply made. It relays on the printing technology and material Apple used to make these manuals.
Another fact we can learn from the IKEA manual is that commonly understood symbols and text can be used to reduce cost when a product is being sold worldwide as it may save the trouble of designing manuals in different languages. However, it is very important to make sure the symbol used in the manual is commonly understood. For example, in the Instruction Manual of the Omni Mount TV mount, the designer used a stop sign to remind users to proceed with caution. However, although stop signs are commonly used in North America, they may be in different shapes or not very commonly used in other countries. Users from those countries may misunderstood the meaning of it when reading the manuals.
And the last but not least: an accurate illustration is usually enough for the users to distinguish different parts, however, when similar parts are present, text and numbering system should be used.