Human beings - not toasters - need user manuals
BUSINESS LIFE:Not long ago I bought a new Braun toaster because I was fed up with the way the old one left a golfer’s tan on one side of the bread and ignored the other side altogether. It is early days, but the new one appears to work much better.
Yet what is even more impressive than its ability to grill bread on both sides simultaneously is that it came with a 15-page manual telling me how to operate it. Do not leave unattended, it said. Only use in upright position. Do not place toaster in a heated oven. Do not use for other than its stated use.
The manufacturer’s fervour for instruction was impressive but was rather wasted on this simple machine. I have been operating toasters successfully for more than four decades and have never put one in the oven. I have found them all the same – they toast for a bit and then they give up. User manuals only have a point for machines that behave in ways not obvious to the novice or that vary from one brand to another.
I’ve always thought that the machine most crying out for a manual was the human being. There are some general operating principles, but each model is different in important ways. If you watch people making toast you’ll find that one person cuts the bread so thick it gets stuck every time while another always makes two slices but only ever eats one.
Until last week I thought the idea of a human operating manual was a jolly fantasy, but then I stumbled on a real example on LinkedIn: a guide to himself written by Aaron Hurst, the social entrepreneur. “People are way more complicated than machines and it is about time we start helping our colleagues understand how we work,” he explained.
The idea of a guide that sets out an individual manager’s style, preferences, likes and dislikes is so good it is extraordinary it has taken us a couple of thousand years to come up with it.
If only I had had a manual for the normally friendly boss who cut me dead in the lift one morning, I would have known he was just hungover; instead I concluded he was about to fire me. Equally, it would have been good to have known that the manager who sought me out to asking me to tell him a difficult truth actually wanted an easy lie. I told him the truth; it was years before he spoke to me again.