July 1, 2024

Bad instructions, bad product?

I currently have a stack of instruction manuals on my desk. More or less any day now, my wife and I are expecting our first baby – and along with endless indescribable joy and an equally endless supply of diapers, babies mean stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.

In the last few months, I’ve unpacked and assembled a changing table and dresser, a car seat, a stroller, a rocking chair, and a bounty of other gadgets. And frankly, the experience has been a mixed bag.

Let’s look at one of the most expensive items, the Wave Crib from Nestig, self-described as the “world’s best” in their paid Google results. If you’re a millennial expectant parent, I guarantee you’ve been served a few hundred Instagram ads for this crib. The one we got is currently retailing for $800 – but the reviews sure make it sound worth it.

And, after it finally arrived, I can say that it is very handsome. It’s sturdy, solid wood, and looks sharp in our bedroom. But it only got in there after I battled with one of the most confusing assembly manuals I’ve ever used. Here’s what it looks like:

This was a lot to take in.

Behind all that visual clutter, it turns out that there are really only a few steps. But it sure seems daunting, right? This is a textbook example of low fluency.

Fluency is the science behind most of what I wrote about in Simply Put, and it basically boils down to how easy something is to take from out in the world, stick it in your head, and make sense of it. Across nearly every dimension, the easier that process is, the more we like, trust, or choose something.

Researchers Hyunjin Song and Norbert Schwartz wrote, “if it’s hard to read, it’s hard to do.” In their 2008 study, they showed two groups of students instructions for an exercise routine, one in an easy-to-read font and the other in a harder-to-read font, and asked them how they felt about exercise afterward. The results showed that while both groups remembered the instructions, their opinion of them differed:

As predicted, they estimated that the exercise would take less time and feel “quicker” and more fluent when the font was easy to read than when the font was difficult to read. Accordingly, they reported a higher willingness to make the exercise part of their daily routine when it was described in an easy-to-read font than when it was described in a difficult-to-read font.

They found the same thing with recipes – the harder they were to read, the more skill and time participants assumed a dish would take. And I found the same with that expensive but dizzying assembly manual.

The moment I opened it, I felt a wave of regret for our purchase. This was going to take hours. After I took a deep breath and dug in though, it turned out to be only a few minutes of work. I survived, but I was left with a bad taste in my mouth.

Assembly instructions aren’t inherently complicated. IKEA sells a crib for a fraction of the price ($119 as of this writing), and comparatively, their document is clear as day.

Oh, this part goes in there. I get it.

Images have room to breathe. Arrows guide each piece through space. And text and numbers are used sparingly. This fluent communication smoothly sails into our brain.

Also on display in these two examples is a counterintuitive truth about simplicity. Something is simpler when it is easier, not when it is shorter. Brevity is often correlated with simplicity, but it’s not the same. While the IKEA booklet has more pages, each one of them is easier to see and understand than the dense, but shorter, Nestig one.

None of this is to say that the Nestig is a bad crib. While the primary user isn’t here yet, my wife and I are happy with how it looks and feels so far. But if another competitor can deliver easier-to-read (and more on-brand) instructions at a fraction of the price, they should be able to, too.

PS: I’m developing a boutique consulting offering based all about fluency and how we can apply it to the web. Check it out at, and let me know what you think.

About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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