Why Nokia’s David Black is probably wrong about the manual-less cellphone

Nokia’s David Black provided an excellent opening keynote presentation at the TCUK 2010 conference, where he described the documentation produced by Nokia and predicted a bleak outlook for all but the most technical of Technical Authors.

David’s team works mostly on developing information for developers and partners, rather than end users. He revealed that 50% of all reported defects were due to inappropriate use of code – code that wasn’t documented. He also explained that if the documents led to a reduction of just 1 in 10,000 defects, then it paid for his department’s budget for the year.

Although he felt no-one but Technical Authors had the answers to how to understand complexity and failure, he believed that products would become so intuitive, and people would be so technically adept, that there would be no need in the future for end-user documentation.

This idea of a product that is “so intuitive anyone can use it” is like the “product that sells itself” – a rare beast. Often, we need marketing and sales professionals to explain what a product means to us, and we need information to explain how to use something once we have it.

I argue there will still be a need to explain technical stuff to non-technical people. This may not be true for mobile phones, as they are used for hours on end every day. Where you are explaining technical stuff to technical people, then David is on the button. However, in most cases, there will still be a need to explain technical stuff to non-technical people. The popularity of “For dummies” and “missing manual” guides shows there’s an appetite for simple explanations.

Kevin Kelly wrote for the New York Times Magazine recently about achieving techno-literacy. Here are some quotes from his article:

“Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.

Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?

Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for.”

Do you think David is right?


Jason Nichols

Hi Ellis, I agree with you. Completely intuitive software & devices are a rarity. I suppose phones are an exception, to a degree. As you write, they are used every day. I received a new smartphone a couple of months ago and I read the first few sections of the user guide to understand its basic functions. I needed that guide. However, for other things like how to use the camera and connect to an email account, I just followed my instincts using the phone, without the guide, and it worked. But people will always think of ways to use devices that have not been documented, which need to be. Or they will attempt to perform an action the device supports, but which is too complex to do without documentation, or even with it! And as you noted, not everyone is tech-savvy.

David Black suggested more and better documentation can reduce supports costs, and that better products can reduce the need for documentation. This is a good aim. But there is a lot of pressure on companies to get products out the door as quickly as possible, and I think there will always be a need for good documentation and good support as part of the overall product “package,” both to explain/support things that are more complex than they should be, as well as to explain/support things that are complex because they have to be.


Larry Kunz

No, I don’t think David is right. The idea that we’ll have products “so intuitive anyone can use [them]” sounds a lot like the paperless office that we were promised in the 1980s. We all know how well that went.

Some features are intuitive. Some features can be figured out, through trial and error, by a user who is sufficiently patient and determined. But there’ll always be features that need to be explained (or shown, perhaps in a video format) to a first-time user. None of us has that much intuition.

Hélène Le Tutour

I agree with you and Larry 100%.
For some products like mobile phones, maybe manuals will become needless (and I said MAYBE), but for more complex products, I can’t see how they could be delivered without documentation.
As far as I’m concerned, as technical as I can be, I still can’t use my oven without having to refer to the manual from time to time.
However, it’s certain that the delivery format of documentation needs to evolve.

Simon Bostock

At the risk of repeating myself, I can see documentation-content being served up in highly-localised or Augmented Reality versions pretty soon. I’m surprised how little people are aware of this stuff, to be honest.

I attended a demo today where people were showing off some incredibly advanced (ie it looked like magic to me) stuff using next-gen QR-code equivalents and other stuff I didn’t understand at all. But, I guess, if history is anything to go by, it’ll all be commonplace next year.

I didn’t think David was laying particular emphasis on the fact there’ll be no need for documentation. He made specific reference to the time-boxing techniques of Agile and I got the impression that he was advocating a kind of perpetual-beta stream of snippets of just-in-time support for both producer and consumer.

He was also pretty explicit about why this would need to be the case. We have no choice because the software is changing faster than we document it. Software isn’t like an oven, for instance.

As usual, though, this won’t be a decision of what is needed or what we think is necessary but will come down to Economics.

My new iPhone4 came with no documentation at all and it took me about half an hour to work out how to insert the sim – which I did via a Google search and an instructional video posted by a hobbyist/reviewer in Oregon. I don’t think Apple decided that there product would be so intuitive I wouldn’t need any guidance. I think they know that there are people out there who can do it ‘good enough’ for far less money than they.

With good reason; the likes of the semi-evil Demand Media seem to be hoovering up all the oven/card-game/video-recorder queries fairly efficiently. And they’ve worked out a way to pay people almost nothing.

I have no idea whether David’s forecast of ‘all but the most technical authors’ perishing will come true. But I do know that there are a lot of technical authors who really really need to read Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation. So far, this is all following a mighty familiar pattern. . .


We’ve blogged a number of times about Augmented Reality and QR tags (of Vizi tags), and agree it could play a key role. We give out Cherry flavoured leaf tea, with a card that has a QR bar code on it. If you scan the bar code, it takes you to a page on our Web site on how to make a cup of green tea.

The risk for Apple on relying on others to provide its User Assistance for them is that it loses control over what is said – the iPhone Antennagate Death Grip for example.

Regarding Demand Media, Clay Shirky’s book “Cognitive Surplus” explains why some people will create “knowledge” for free.

Chris Atherton

At the risk of taking a very simplistic approach here, my observations on product documentation have been that:

1. Someone writes documentation
2. Product ships
3. User rips shiny new product out of box and starts using it with the bare minimum (0+) of reference to documentation
4. Product glitches, falls over, or can’t be made to do something, and user asks their local alpha geek to fix it. Alpha geek consults the internet, fixes product.
5. Documentation languishes.

So I guess I have to disagree with David, though maybe not for quite the same reasons as everyone else.

Chris Atherton

PS — sorry, the above reads somewhat as though I’m making the assumption that documentation = paper. Which a lot of the time it is, but. And as above, there are a lot of hobbyists out there supplementing the official documentation, sometimes doing a much better job. My husband just mentioned the phrase “trust network” in this context.


There are different types of users. Some dive in, some will read everything before they start. It also differs between cultures. Where ‘loss of face’ is a cultural factor, people don’t like to make mistakes.

Tech Comms UK roundup and a look ahead to LavaCon 2.0 | Firehead

[…] Why Nokia’s David Black is probably wrong about the manual-less cellphone Ellis Pratt of Cherryleaf says: “In most cases, there will still be a need to explain technical stuff to non-technical people. The popularity of ‘For dummies’ and ‘missing manual’ guides shows there’s an appetite for simple explanations.” […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.