A brief history of product manuals

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Last week, I received a shipment of a table from Ikea. Along with it came in a assembly instruction manual. The steps were somewhat complex. Without the manual, it would have been quite a challenge to assemble it.

It got me thinking, when did instruction guides become so important in our lives. Almost all products we buy, come with some sort of manual. When did this start? Did cavemen draw pictures to share how to light a fire with a dry stick and stone?

As per wiki, many ancient devices, like Antikythera Mechanism, a 2,000 year old Greek analogue computer had instructions imprinted on them. But an earliest modern day example of when products included instruction manuals is - Kodak Box Brownie camera in 1900. It was a revolutionary product. But more interestingly, this product not only included technical specifications but also guidance on how to take good photographs.

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While the fundamental concept remained same, the format and content of manuals has been evolving too. Globalisation pushed for creating documentation in multiple languages. As products got complicated, words were insufficient to communicate it all. So manuals started including lot of images. In fact, Ikea started creating manuals made almost entirely of images. Nowadays, products have QR codes or links that point you to digital documentation. That also allowed product makers to use videos.

As things will evolve, modern tech products may employ AI to show you a more personalised guide with the exact things you wish to see. Or it could go an opposite direction entirely. Companies like Apple, are pushing so hard on their product design, that user manuals aren't needed anymore. But I still believe we are still far away from reaching that stage for every product. Till then, just DIY.

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