Manual without text

It can work, but it doesn’t always.

© Zlatan Durakovic / Fotolia

© Zlatan Durakovic / Fotolia

Something strange happened during a usability test with a text-free assembly manual. A participant who got stuck at a specific image sequence when working through the manual talked to one of the other participants after the usability test. During the conversation he understood the meaning of the image sequence, and I asked him if he thought the manual was fit for use. “The manual works great, it’s all really easy to understand”, he told me. So he no longer found himself in the same situation.

How can we put ourselves in a user’s place and develop a text-free manual that is not only usable, but also as reliable as possible? Instead of just getting started or getting inspired by similar manuals, we should put most of our energy into the design phase.

Our first task is to analyse all the information we have to provide to the user and to identify the different information types, such as descriptions, preconditions, causes and effects, interdependencies and branches. We realised early on during this phase where things could get complicated with pictorial representation. Do multiple variants really need to be summarised in a single pictorial manual, or would this ultimately make the manual unusable? That is exactly what had happened in the example above. The individual images were effective, but the user did not understand how to navigate between alternative action sequences.

But maybe we also realised during the design phase that the mesh of information was too complex to be represented in a static pictorial manual. Here, texts could improve comprehension, but they would have to be translated, something that most people are trying to avoid by using text-free manuals. Another option is to use other media that can provide situation-based instruction to users, and also obtain their feedback. That is something we are familiar with from malfunctions in printer systems.

If the concept shows that the text-free manual is feasible, we fall back on recognised illustration conventions and follow the fundamental rules of human image processing processes. In this case less is more; overloaded images and aesthetic aspects often prevent the intended purpose of an image from being clear. When it comes to illustrating alternatives and contrasts, a quest for consistency is more of a hindrance than a help. CI specifications can also limit the comprehensibility of pictorial manuals, e.g. if specific colours or design elements are prescribed.

Here is a brief summary of how a text-free manual can work:

  • Schedule plenty of time for the analysis and concept phases.
  • During implementation, use the relevant illustration conventions and obey recognised principles of perception, and remember to keep it simple.
  • Test the manual in the most realistic situation possible, and don’t speak with your colleagues about how the images work.

The end result must be a pictorial manual that does not reveal how complex it was to create; after all, the skill here is to hide the underlying complexity from the user.