Authentic Brands Have Great User Manuals

By Ty Hagler

As the saying goes, “Don’t ruin a $100 meal with a five cent dessert.” The same can be said for building great brands, and the required attention to detail in order to make sure that every expression of the brand – from product to website, packaging to retail environments – communicates a consistent, authentic message. 

Brands signal quality across a series of products, and a negative sign of quality in one product has the ability to influence customer perception of the entire brand. Take, for instance, Toyota’s problems with the Prius a few years back (and the company’s initial response, perceived by some to be tone-deaf), and their impact on sales across the entire Toyota line. Consumers are willing to forgive the occasional mistakes of established brands like Toyota.  Emerging brands are more vulnerable to poorly executed brand expressions, since consumers are still in an evaluation phase with regard to their respective opinions and personal experiences with the brand.

In order to drive brand engagement and equity, companies must try to hit on all cylinders with regard to the brand experience. This means that companies must pay attention to every detail—from the product’s design, in terms of form and function, the packaging (which drives the purchasing experience), logos and brand marks, and the overall experience of customers in each purchasing channel, be it a retail store or an e-commerce site.

One aspect of the brand experience that companies neglect, and often to their peril, is the user manual. While the user manual for most products isn’t a key selling-point that would influence the purchase, it is an essential part of proving the value of the purchase – and ultimately influences the consumer’s perception of that brand’s quality. The user manual, particularly for advanced technology products, is critical to the total brand experience. Often, these products are introducing innovation in function which necessitates creating a new customer experience, to which the customer is asked to learn something new to get the benefit of the increased functionality.

A word of caution: while user manuals are critical to delivering an authentic brand experience, they should not be used as a patch for ill-conceived customer experiences.  The most elegant manual simply can’t make up for needlessly complex products that have been overburdened by features during their development. In these cases, the user manual grows in complexity, becoming intimidating and useless to the consumer.  The good news is that, if the product design team has done their job to deliver a clean user experience, then the user manual should be a simple matter of communicating their success.

Too often, user manuals rely upon 3D CAD screenshots and language only an engineer‘s mother could love. It’s absolutely critical that brand managers understand that user manuals can transcend this template. Thoughtful illustrations of the steps involved in assembly or use of the product, along with clear, concise instructions, go a long way to making the customer comfortable as she experiences a product for the first time. The written instructions should exemplify the language of the product’s customer base itself.

Finally, once a company has a “draft” of the user manual in place, another critical step of market research, one-on-one customer testing, should take place. Potential customers should vet the efficacy of the user manual—customers unburdened by the knowledge of all of the assumptions made by designers and engineers during the development of the product. This un-biased feedback ensures that the product developers aren’t blinded by their own expertise, but guided by empathy for people they want to purchase and enjoy their products, thus building a successful brand.

Ty Hagler

Trig, 510 Meadowmont Village Circle, Chapel Hill, NC, 27517, usa