Merits of the PDA Manual – To Read or Not to Read

by Reads (6,482)

I had a chance this weekend to help a friend set up her budget and also give her some training and free programs with her PDA. I went about helping her get started and noticed something. A lot of the functions that I kind of take for granted, she had no idea of how to do. Things like moving a file from the memory card to the handheld or using the Help feature to look up a particular function were foreign to her. Yet for me, who is a bit more seasoned with working with handhelds and computers in general, it was something that I didn’t even think twice about.

That got me thinking about what it really means to design a handheld or handheld accessory. More often than not, I read threads and opinions about people who want the biggest and best functions. They want their handheld to replace their wallet, be a high grade digital camera, be a replacement word processor and internet terminal, and still get great battery life. But for all of that functionality, I wonder how designers look at implementing those items.
For example, look at a company like palmOne. PalmOne has for many seasons brought out devices that were not the latest and greatest technology, but they were easy to use. They were designed to just work the way you want them to right out of the box. I can’t really complain about that. Between the included software and some tweaks here and there, palmOne handhelds are really hard to put down. Then again, they always seem to be missing a feature or two.

But, back to that point about being well designed…

I read a few times about how people want and use phones with absolutely so many features that it would make another person’s head spin. Then again, they have a tendency to read those ever-getting-thicker manuals. Who has time to read those things? They don’t have attractive wording, are usually boring, and only good when you need to know how long your warranty lasts and where to send to send it when that day it needs to be serviced comes.

Ok, so I went a little far with that last comment. But it really is true in saying that if you have to look up how to turn a device on, you probably won’t buy it, let alone use it. Some tools need to just be usable right out of the box. When my friend and I were working on helping her create a budget on her handheld, she remarked at how hard it was to figure out where things go. Items didn’t follow the way she “thought” that they should. And for her, that means there is a less likely chance of her using that part of her PDA for that function.

I think that in many ways we are all like that. There is this power of the manual that just repels us from wanting to look at it for anything. We want to just get a device and use it. Who wants to spend a ton of time configuring options, and trying to make two points meet? That is one of the reasons why I do not prefer the Windows Mobile platform for my needs. There are just so many options and tapping going on. It literally reminds me of my desktop. I don’t want that in my handheld. Then again, it would be nice if my handheld could do more than one task at a time. That is my idea of simplicity as much as it is that the device works right out of the box.

So as I sat with my friend, she asked me about my T5 and what I can do with it. I started to show her many things like being wireless and using Drive mode to move files on my memory card. And as much as she was amazed, it was just too complicated. Who wants to read a manual just to figure out how Bluetooth works?

I know, some of you are reading this and saying that we can’t be totally oblivious and do some homework on a device. Some of you probably read this and can’t even understand why a person would not know how to use a replacement launcher, or set up the PDA to sync on Linux, Windows and Mac computers. But you are exactly the people who need to hear this. Many people do not know the power of the manual and how much knowing a device will enable you to do so much more than what was advertised on television. It is up to us that know to teach those that don’t. If all of us experts come down off our tech perches long enough, maybe there will be fewer holiday tech support calls and more holiday feasts of Warfare Inc. and Madden 2005 matches.

So what do manufacturers do to help that along? They design better devices, streamline interfaces, and offer something more than just more power and the latest wireless standards. They offer a solution, instead of creating a problem. That is what I think is the holy grail of design and manufacturing. Creating a product that solves a problem, and is stylish enough to attract older and younger users alike. Ok, so that is a lot to ask, but it is possible. I thought that Nintendo did that with the GameBoy SP. Have you ever seen so many adults on a train playing one of those? It is nearly as funny as seeing all the white headphones. Great design leads to greater sales. Great design leads to fewer headaches. Or at least good enough design that we can all create a budget and still have enough time to enjoy the holiday feast.

I feel that PDAs and other technical items should be designed in such a way that a manual should not even be needed. That interface elements, adding multimedia items, editing content, and even syncing should be able to be easily figured out. On the other hand, more advanced items with those features should be able to be found by reading the manual. In that way I feel that the manual has some power to empower a person to getting better use out of their tool. Design and function go hand and hand. Making a function so complex that it needs a training workshop is counterproductive.

When you start looking for that PDA, something to take into consideration, as much as pricing and features, is how easy it is to perform a task. Sure, you may have to use the manual for some things. But, if you need a manual just to figure out how to turn it on, chances are it is the design, and not you.

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