Some Assembly Required

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Why are product instructions so universally reviled? On the consumer side, this is not a new phenomenon. For decades, consumers have viewed instructions as an obstacle to enjoying a newly purchased product. They are often tedious, hard to follow, confusing and laden with legal copy, warnings and translations.

In fact, a Scandinavian study found that consumers will labor an average of just 20 minutes before giving up and returning electronics and high-tech products that they have a hard time with. These returns aren’t directly related to specific flaws or defects—the consumer just can’t figure out how to use it.

On the product side, the development of product instructions—also known as documentation—adds cost to the product, eats up precious resources and tends to slow product development cycles—sometimes even delaying product launches. This task often doesn’t have a permanent home, since it bridges numerous functional areas including research and development, product management, engineering, quality, marketing and customer support.

It’s clear that there is lots of negative baggage associated with product instructions. But what may not be as clear are the benefits of better instructions. Let’s take a look at the big three:

1) Instructions Improve Consumer Satisfaction

It doesn’t get much more obvious. Still, it’s surprising how many companies get caught up in what we call “shallow marketing,” focusing more on development and launch and less on what happens when the product moves off the shelf.

More and more of our clients (and big-box retailers) are shifting their attention to the out-of- the-box experience—and with good reason. Previous experiences with products influence new purchases, so dissatisfaction with a product’s instructions means consumers are unlikely to buy the same product again.

Here are a few relevant statistics:

  • A survey conducted in the United Kingdom in 1995 by a company called Userview found that 68 percent of respondents would not buy a product again if they had a bad experience with the instructions.
  • A follow-up survey in 2006 found that percentage had increased to 77 percent. And 81 percent of respondents who had a bad experience with instructions said they would not buy other products from the same manufacturer.
  • Research conducted by Aberdeen Group in 2010 found that manufacturers that were classified as “best in class” for producing high-quality and usable product instructions saw a 23-percent increase in consumer satisfaction and an 18-percent increase in revenue.

2) Get Better Reviews

Consumers are finding new avenues for and becoming less shy about providing purchase experience feedback. It’s crucial that your instructions lead to a positive outcome, because as we all know, they are also considerably more likely to voice their feedback when they have had a negative experience.

They are also more likely to rely on the feedback of others. Surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 determined that 75 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 64 research products online before buying. And with the proliferation of mobile platforms, research is increasingly taking place at point of purchase, with shoppers calling friends for advice about a purchase, looking up online reviews of a product or checking the price of a product to see if they could do better elsewhere. (“The Rise of In-Store Mobile Commerce,” January 2012).

3) Instructions Reduce Product Returns

This is probably the most compelling reason to invest in better instructions, especially when you look at the numbers. Accenture Research data shows that within the U.S. consumer electronics industry, between 11 percent and 20 percent of products are returned annually. Of those returns, 60 percent to 85 percent are what the industry calls NTF (no trouble found) returns: The consumer simply didn’t understand the product, didn’t need the product or couldn’t figure out how to assemble or use the product. In the consumer electronics industry alone, somewhere between $11.5 billion and $30 billion worth of perfectly good products is coming back to the store. Taking a bite out of numbers like that can be pretty good motivation for manufacturers and retailers alike.

4.) Turn Fear into a Feature

Clearly, improvements in product packaging and documentation can have a major impact on the consumer experience and the bottom line. So how do we convert those three most feared words, “some assembly required,” into a feature?

Here are some suggestions to improve comprehension and usability:

Focus on the end user, not on yourself. When working with clients, we often encounter what we’ve come to call “product bias.” Engineers and product managers are so fully engaged in the features, functions and details of a product that they can no longer see it the way an average consumer will. They’ve lost their ability to be objective about what a consumer will and won’t do when working with a product for the first time. This is why it’s so important to make sure you’ve thought about who is using the instructions, as well as how and where they will be used.

Research indicates that 50 percent of Americans read at an eighth grade level or below. Don’t talk down to consumers, but be as simple, clear and concise as possible. What’s intuitive or obvious to you may not be to a consumer. Break things down into simple steps and use common language, not jargon, acronyms or overly technical language.

Set expectations. Consumers want to understand what they’re buying, how it will work, what it will and won’t do, and how easy or difficult it will be to install or assemble it. Answer as many consumer questions as possible up front:

  • What’s in the box?
  • What’s not in the box?
  • What tools or additional hardware/parts are needed?
  • How long will it take?
  • What do I do if parts are missing?
  • Is there support if I have questions?
  • Do I need more than one person to safely install or assemble?

Consider format and organization carefully. Again, think about how and where the instructions will be used. Safety, warranty and legal information is extremely important, but it can intimidate and put off users. Making this information easy to locate is important, but you don’t want to bury the assembly or installation process in a sea of legal copy.

In considering format, keep in mind that booklets allow you to break information into segments or sections that may be easier for users to assess, digest, understand and follow.

Larger formats can be used to show a broader perspective of the process and are often favored by goal-oriented users. Whichever format you choose, ensure you’ve broken the process down into digestible chunks.

Use more visuals. Studies have consistently shown that people prefer pictorial instruction to words alone, as they are easier to understand and remember. Combine clear illustrations and concise copy, which doesn’t clutter instructions with ancillary details, to reinforce what’s shown. Some visuals to include:

  • Images of what parts are included, using consistent viewing angles throughout
  • Clear labels on parts and arrows to show how the parts move
  • Numbers and sequencing to guide consumers through the instructions
  • Human forms demonstrating actions, where needed for clarity

Wherever possible, also show completed steps to give users the opportunity to validate that they’ve completed steps correctly (e.g., here’s what it should look like at this point in the process). Improving visuals can dramatically improve user satisfaction with instructions.

Consider the entire product lifecycle. If you’re going to invest in better product instructions, it makes sense to leverage that investment wherever possible. Include information that the consumer will need throughout all interactions with your products, including point of sale, packaging, out-of-the-box, after-sale support, technical service and disposal and recycling.

Everything that improves and enhances the consumer experience (and subsequently your brand) should be part of your product development and marketing efforts—including proper product instructions to give a more positive experience. Financial gains can also be realized by reducing product returns and warranty and product support costs. In a nutshell, better instructions can help you move product off the shelves, as well as keep it from coming back—a sure way to improve your bottom line.

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  • Rob Eddy is vice president of sales and marketing at Infographics, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based graphic design firm that specializes in technical publications. Prior to that, he held product management and marketing roles at Haworth Inc., Newell Rubbermaid, Bemis Manufacturing and Novell Inc. He may be reached at

Rob Eddy

Rob Eddy

Rob Eddy is vice president of sales and marketing at Infographics, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based graphic design firm that specializes in technical publications. Prior to that, he held product management and marketing roles at Haworth Inc., Newell Rubbermaid, Bemis Manufacturing and Novell Inc. He may be reached at

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