A core element of instruction manuals, rhetoric, can be said to have originated with the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Isocrates in the 3rd Century BCE. Aristotle contributed to this innovation by writing Rhetoric, an influential philosophical work that focused on the comparisons between dialectical methods and rhetorical methods. While the former is built around logical arguments between two people, the latter is, put simplistically, more of a one-sided argument with the intent to persuade its audience—in effect, rhetoricians want to teach their audiences something of which they know only the superficial details. What is interesting is that in an effort to counteract superficial details, the rhetoricians use more superficial details. It should go without saying that superficial does not mean bad, nor does depth always equal worth. Instruction manuals would not be much help if the authors went in expecting an audience to know the intricacies of the facts they want to convey, so rather than assuming familiarity with the topic, authors explain their points indiscriminately.
Ease of Access in Instruction Manuals
Traditional means of writing are popular in this work, as are pictograms, an approach IKEA favors to long paragraphs of directions. According to BBC News, IKEA’s manuals are controversial in that a few of the products they travel with have poor design, not so much a flaw as an overrepresented quality that does no credit to the manual’s craftsmanship. The product’s difficulty should be commensurate with the manual’s clarity. What is a manual promoting if not ease of access?
Like James Joyce after him, Immanuel Kant is famous for penning a work notorious for how little it is read. He called it the Critique of Pure Reason, a rebuttal in some ways against the Empiricists’ argument in favor of humanity’s passive knowledge that grew with John Locke and David Hume. Pure Reason‘s publication precipitated a revolution in philosophical thought—that is, it did so for the people who understood it. So few people knew how to interpret Kant that after releasing the second edition of Pure Reason, Kant published a smaller work, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, which he intended as an instruction manual for Pure Reason. It is common practice anymore to interpret Prolegomena before attempting Pure Reason, a bit like how families have to read the manuals before they build their IKEA bed frames. What to take away from this is that Kant knew his audience well enough to anticipate their needing an extended footnote to recognize the innovations of his work.
However much it seems patronizing, Kant’s transparency with his audience had a different purpose. Instruction manuals are crafted in part with the consideration of the time and place. Now, bear in mind, Pure Reason was published in 1781, a time at which the Enlightenment was still the dominant philosophical era, and few people were thinking like Kant. Even though Kant thought he was being clear, he knew that Pure Reason had to be written in a style that would not be popular with the general public. He did his best, then, to translate his philosophy into a form that specialists and laypeople alike could analyze.
Instruction manuals are probably the last thing that comes to mind when thinking of egalitarian models, but companies consider all possible connotations to better attract their audience. Everybody gets a manual, and everybody can, within reason, follow its directions. The expectations toward the audience are, importantly, realistic, and the design follows the Goldilocks Principle, which goes exactly like it sounds. You can also call it structural literacy, described in this Scientific American article as “knowing what to look for”. The ease of this ability depends entirely on the manual’s layout; is it simple or complicated, clear or convoluted, and if in both cases, it is the latter, what can be done to make the reading a more rewarding experience?
In mentioning rewards, it is important that I note they are extrinsic. Maybe the customer is working off inner motivation to understand the product, but more likely, experiencing the product’s benefits is the end goal. Similar to crowds that gather during a speech, the customers who study instruction manuals want to know what the product can offer them. The entertainment factor is secondary to clarity, but people need to have a reason to tell themselves why they will not walk away from the speech or put down the manual. They need to be convinced, and they want to be convinced.
Nobody listens, for example, to a speech that has no greater message to it. There’s a reason John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech captured several generations’ attention. With varying intonations and rhetorical phrasing, the two speakers leave no room for misinterpretation. Within reason, instruction manuals can be similarly captivating. Designs like the IKEA pictograms increase audience engagement in that twists on conventional patterns bring onlookers. Sometimes, the information is captivating in and of itself.
As Kant could attest, the best intentions can leave others confused. Pure Reason was never meant to be a bestseller, but it should have been clear to at least the specialists. The Prolegomena helped, yet even in it, Kant had to compress his insights to fit the shorter format, a sacrifice which was fair to neither Kant nor his readers. Scholarly manuals came out of this problem, all written by professors who interpreted Kant’s works. It is possible to be too close to something and not have a way to explain its intricacies to others.
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Written by Will Boswell