One oft forgotten but pivotal aspect of consumers’ product experience centers on instruction manuals for assembly, use and maintenance – or, what many people have grown to dread as incomprehensible directions that, in theory, are supposed to make a product work.
How many of us have struggled to the point of total frustration with archaic instructions offering no help whatsoever with a new product we’ve just purchased and anxiously await to use? The experience is practically universal – just ask any parent who has struggled until 4 a.m. Christmas morning with a child’s “some assembly required” toy.
The fact this consumer nightmare is so commonplace should tell all of us in product development fields that many companies are doing something wrong . . . specifically, failing to make a consumer’s initial product experience an enjoyable one.
Why should companies take notice? Consider these realities:
- Companies that offer clear, concise and well-written product instructions (also known as “post-purchase” communications tools) generally experience fewer product returns. Conversely, customers faced with poor instruction manuals sometimes decide that assembling a complicated product is not worth their trouble and demand their money back. (As a matter of fact, I worked with one company that was struggling with a 50 percent non-defective return rate because consumers could not understand how to install and use its product.)
- Manufacturers also reap benefits of lower customer call center demand when product communications provide inclusive information. In addition, good assembly and usage instructions offer a solid foundation for consumers and customer service agents to communicate – facilitating smoother and clearer support.
- For a company’s legal department, fewer product liability claims due to injury or poor performance arise when consumers correctly assemble, use and maintain their new purchase.
- In dealing with products distributed to international markets, manufacturers can also realize lower translation costs and less confusion across cultural boundaries when they employ proper use of universal symbols and understandable graphics.
- An improved brand perception often follows any company that makes the consumer’s assembly experience an easy and “painless” one. That brand perception can have residual effects, such as a consumer’s desire to purchase other products of the same brand or to recommend a brand’s products to friends.
- Better product instructions typically result in much better ownership experiences, which, at the end of the day, can easily parlay into increased sales, higher profitability and greater market share.
- Determine the appropriate department and specific manager(s) within your company to guide product communications. Frequently, tight product launch schedules and a lack of clearly defined responsibility can lead to hastily developed post-purchase communications tools. Establishing ownership for the development of these components can make a significant difference.
- Communicate internally with other managers and functions to gain buy-in across departments. Quality assurance and customer service functions most often deal with shortcomings in the area of “post-purchase” communications. However, these functions seldom lend input on creating these tools; instead, usually product development, marketing and/or engineering drive instruction manual development. By establishing cross-functional teams and collecting multiple perspectives interdepartmentally, companies can enhance product manuals significantly.
- Research how your product’s instruction manual currently performs by collecting direct customer feedback (i.e. product registration cards, product packaging inserts, customer call center questionnaires, etc.). Evaluate factors like readability, quality of illustration, accuracy of instruction, whether or not the entire informational piece is “intimidating” (too much complex information) or inadequate (not enough information to be useful). Focus groups can also provide a wealth of insight. If possible, try to compare your product’s informational performance with those of competitors’ products.
- Establish metrics that will allow you to measure and quantify the results of making improvements, such as volume/content of call center inquiries, reasons cited for product returns, litigation cases attributed to “faulty design” that may have originated as assembly/maintenance issues not addressed adequately in product literature, etc.
- Consider working with a third-party design expert specializing in consumer product communications, via both written copy and graphic illustration/design. Check the company’s references for a track record of performance with large consumer brand names, highly technical products and multicultural communications.
Rob Eddy is vice president of marketing for Knoxville, Tennessee-based Infographics, a pioneer and leader in the development of innovative post-purchase product communications tools for consumer goods manufacturers. A 1986 University of Wisconsin graduate, Eddy’s broad experience includes marketing communications, product development, product line management and brand management with major national brands such as Bemis, Rubbermaid, Rolodex, Eldon, Newell, Haworth, and United Chair.