If you have never heard of OXO kitchen products, let me introduce you to them. They are a company that has kept human factors in mind when they designed their award winning kitchen products.</p>
If ever there was a place for good product design, it is in the kitchen. Seems Sam Farber, who founded OXO, managed this. He developed kitchen utensils with out-sized and comfortable knobs and handles. When it came to manufacturing kitchen tools, Mr. Farber noticed that manufacturers seemed to only considered cost. They made junk and people expected the junk they bought to last only a few months, to be later replaced by more junk! People went out and bought a replacement that was as much junk as the tool they just used. In the long run, people came to expect junk and so lived with it. But not Sam Farber.
Who hasn’t hurt their hands trying to open a can using those clunky steel can openers? Well, actually today few of those clunkers are still made because Farber changed the marketplace, for good. Farber believed people deserved better - and so he delivered.
“The design incorporated plump, resilient handles for twist and push-pull tools like knives and peelers, while squeeze tools like can openers had hard handles. All handles were oval in cross section, to better distribute forces on the hand and enhance grip, even for wet hands. The measuring cups and spoons featured large, high-contrast markings for visibility.”
The cost of this product was more than the junk product people were used to. Good design, quality, usability, and value always costs more. For kitchen utensils, the cost of junk was a product that hurt the hands of the user. For documentation, the cost of junk is usually the reputation of a company and increased support calls.
Documentation is not a last-minute product
Documentation is not an add-on, something that is thrown together at the last minute to ensure all the boxes are checked in the packing list. Some companies treat documentation like that. They say to themselves, and even to technical writers, “well, people never read the documentation anyway.”
In fact, product users will read the documentation. If a user has a problem with the product, they will reach out for the manual and expect an answer to the problem they are having with the product. And if they don’t find it, they will toss aside the manual and call technical support. And when the company gets this call, product managers will see this call as a confirmation of their belief that “people never read the documentation anyway”, so why bother producing good documentation. Just get it done and be done with it.
Unfortunately, the product user’s poor experience with the documentation has some negative consequences for the company. How so? The product user will think the company didn’t bother to product good documentation (which they didn’t bother to do) and next time they might choose another product.
And why did they not bother? Because product managers were caught in a self-fulfilling problem. If product managers expected users to not read the documentation, then that is what will happen because the documentation, like those old can openers, was junk. If the product managers expected users to actually read and use the documentation, they will see documentation as a high priority and build usability and completeness into the manuals. Documentation will not be just a last minute task, but an integral part of the product. And they will expect quality and usability to be built into the end results. And like the product, it will take time to develop good documentation, not a few hours or days at the end of the current development cycle to throw something together.
Product managers cannot expect quality if documentation is seen as a last minute item to ensure all of the boxes are checked on the packing list.
Good Design = Good Price
The moral of the story? Usability is not about keeping the costs down and matching specs based on a general idea of customer requirements, although that is important. It is based on an insight; an idea that it can be done better. Farber saw a clear need to improve on the usability of an existing product and was not satisfied until it was designed and executed properly. It wasn’t just done well. It was done exceedingly well. And that means taking the time to do it right and placing quality as a high priority.
We can be satisfied with junk, and many people are because they do not expect quality. As Sam Farber demonstrated, Usability Matters, and he changed the way we think about kitchen utensils. The same can be said about documentation, but only if product managers start seeing documentation as an integral part of the product and not a last minute item to ensure all the packing list boxes are checked.