Disagreeing with a billionaire visionary genius

I heart Elon Musk. I really do. His focus, the things he has done, his approach, the things he says, most of them anyway. But clearly being a high performing billionaire, innovator and genius doesn’t make you right all the time.

“Any product that needs a manual to work is broken” – Elon Musk

This quote was shared with me (again) recently, put forward as evidence that good design should remove the need for any kind of instruction manual. As far as I can tell the origin of this was 2013, the context was questions about the battery warranty for the Tesla Model S.

In essence, this quote was the answer to why Tesla will replace batteries under warranty even if charging guidelines from the manual aren’t followed. This is Tesla being the good guys, not hiding behind small print but accepting the reality of human nature. Which is great from a customer experience point of view, highly praiseworthy.

But it’s also disappointing, because it means that it isn’t something that has been taken out of context by the thousands of people that have repeated it. He meant it as most people understand it. That if a product requires instructions to use properly, then it’s broken, that the bar for a ‘good product’ is that it can be used without instruction.

Sorry Elon, wrong.

And not just a little bit wrong, this isn’t one of those edge case type of things, where I cleverly identify an example that disproves his hypothesis. I can’t think of a ‘product’ in the history of humankind since the wooden club that hasn’t required some kind of instruction to enable a ‘user’ to make best use of it without extensive trial and error.

We don’t have to be in the era of online services and hi-tech products for this to be true. Flint knives, spears, bow and arrows, animal traps; safe, effective use of any of them requires some kind of instruction. A way of passing knowledge from those that understand the best way to use something, to those that have never used it before.

And if instructions are required then a manual is a valid solution.

(For completeness I should note that my colleague pointed out it’s quite easy to get it wrong with a club too. It might be useful to have someone show you the best grip and stance so you don’t accidentally lose control of the club, or lose your balance and smash yourself in the face.)

What’s worse is products that are intuitive to use may generate a false impression of competency which is actually pretty limiting. My young son can use my phone and my iPad easily enough, but he doesn’t understand the ecosystems they operate within, or the settings that support his interactions with them. Consequently he has no ability to handle any exceptions that occur. That’s just annoying with a small child who needs help every time he wanders out of wi-fi range, but dependent on the product category that false belief in personal competency could be the source of considerable risk. (See what happens when people jump from a Ford Focus into a super car for example).

Without instruction we’re left to trial and error, a risky way to learn but at least it’s pretty straightforward for simple products, with complex ones it’s time consuming, difficult and potentially dangerous. Much better to be given a foundational understanding to work with.

From a customer point of view it’s a good experience to be able to pick up a new product and be able to use it without requiring new information and we can certainly use design to make that more likely. But while we may make the assumption that customers will view having to learn as boring, it may also be essential to creating positive experiences that have depth.

One of the challenges with great products that are intuitive is the lack of that depth in their use. How many people do you know who worked out all the permutations that were possible in controlling music via the headset on an iPhone without guidance or instruction?

Did that mean it was broken? No, anyone could use it, and it had a sophisticated way of using a simple mechanic to deliver a wide range of functions. But without a ‘manual’ or at least a hint, the chances of any given user finding those features are limited.

Given that hint users can create a basic mental model of how things work, dramatically increasing the likelihood of them getting maximum use and fully appreciating any product. Instructions don’t mean it’s broken, they show that a product has real value, manuals are one of the ways that a human being can learn from their peers and get access to that value, quickly and safely.

Manuals aren’t about band-aiding imperfect products (though I admit they are sometimes used for that), their purpose is to share information and experience, in other words transferring knowledge and not even Elon Musk will be able to convince me that’s anything but good.


Jay Nicholl

Strategy Director


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