Write the f*cking manual

Another fun manual

As a User Experience person, I was brought up to despise the RTFM (Read The F*cking Manual) approach. According to user-centered design methodology, if you have to accompany your product with a manual, your interface is messed up. Go back to the sketching board and try again.

I recently became in charge of one of Everything.me’s internal systems, dubbed Maestro which has gone through a re-design and a got plethora of new features. At the same time, we grew our operations team, and some will be working from home, away from our day-to-day office interactions. 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 it launched. All of this comes down to a pipeline of new features and usability improvements, which I will be very happy to tackle and design. So far, so good.

A few days ago, I was asked to write a manual for new Maestro operators, explaining how to use the system. Being instinctively repulsed by the request, I tried first to dodge that bullet, saying 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.

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. Next time you’re launching a new product or feature, give WTFM a try.

Image taken from TheenMoy‘s Flickr profile and used under Creative Commons.