The graphic dilemma in user instructions - exploring the gap between past graphic diversity in instructional material and current practice.




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New Views II



Peer reviewed



The history of user instructions demonstrates a graphic diversity and freedom from the conventionality that typifies current examples, especially those that attempt to explain the operation of new technology products to ordinary consumers. This paper shows how ideas from graphic design history can be used both critically and creatively to question and improve current practice. The overall aim of the project is to formulate a new model that will benefit both the user and the manufacturer as an integrated part of brand communication.

Firstly, this paper will define the problem: it will attempt to trace and explain the separation of research into the effectiveness of user instructions from the broader flow of graphic design practice and research. Current user instructions demonstrate a limited graphic language that has evolved through a science-based quantitative research methodology. This process measures the reader’s cognitive responses in artificial test conditions. The visual outcomes have failed to satisfy the increasing need for user instructions to be both simple and an integrated, consistent tool of brand communication between manufacturer and user.

Secondly, the paper explores the potential through a range of examples from the history of user instructions. Examples will focus on those that introduce new technology to a domestic context. These demonstrate both the aesthetic and rhetorical breadth of graphic language, as well as their significance to specific audiences. They illustrate attempts to resolve the conflicting demands of technical instruction whilst promoting brand values and persuading users of the benefits of new technology. Design historians such as Brockmann (1998) and Attfield (1990, 2006) have shown that exploring design ideas from a real-user context can provide an alternative, more meaningful and relevant assessment of designed artifacts.

Finally, this paper will describe research practice, showing how visualised qualitative methods can analyse rich and significant graphic communication content (Doblin, Kress & Van Leeuwen, Jewitt, Crow, Meggs, Berger, Goffman, Lidwell), considering visual rhetoric and relevance to the user's context in addition to instructional content (Hartley, Schriver, Booher, Westendorp, etc). This method can be used to extract ideas and content from instructional documents, which could provide design principles incorporating contextual relevance and value to the user. This parallels recent trends in other areas of design that explore beyond mere functionality to the emotional significance (Norman, Crilly) and user's experience of design (Shedroff).



graphic design, design history, qualitative methods, instructional literature



Research Institute