One of the movies being released this Christmas is Downsizing, a tale of people being shrunk to reduce their cost of living by reducing the resources needed to support them. It’s a sad commentary on our current state of affairs that my first thought was they would be able to read the tiny instruction manuals currently being foisted on us. When did we collectively decide that an unfolding business card with 2 point font, was a suitable method of giving setup instructions?

Instruction manuals for this Christmas. The dollar bill is for scale.

I agree that the full color, poster sized instructions, once provided by Hewitt Packard were equally frustrating in their own way. Once unfolded you could hardly find the printer.  This Christmas the pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that the paragraph headers on the tiny instruction manuals are only slightly larger than the fine print on my last loan.

I realize my eyes aren’t what they used to be but when the instructions are so small I can’t discern if I’m trying to read English or Chinese, it’s time to complain (it was Chinese, the other side was English). There’s no doubt this is being done to save money. The size of the lettering on the outside of the box makes it clear they already know the value of large type. I can’t help but wonder if they have calculated the true cost of these savings.

Using Office Depot for a quote, if I buy printed instructions in quantities of one thousand, a single sheet of black and white instructions will cost me six cents.  Folded in half, that would give them four pages of reasonable sized instructions. Assuming that anything over eight pages should be on their website, giving us human readable instructions will cost 12 cents.

Magnifying glasses

If I‘m looking at two identical products with 12 cents difference in price, common sense dictates I will buy the cheaper product. However, if one box proudly announces “Easy to read Instructions,” I’ll gladly pay the extra money for instructions I can read without resorting to  my magnifying glasses.

Given how Amazon has dominated the retail market, maybe they should set standards on type size. They already have frustration free packaging, how about standards for frustration free instructions? No more tiny instruction manuals, no type size smaller than legal contract fine print.

I don’t know about other states, but Texas requires most legal information to be at least ten points. As much as I hate class action lawsuits, that certainly sounds like an opportunity for some law firm to make themselves wealthy.

Maybe the manufacturers are counting on most people not reading the instructions. Too hard, too confusing, too small, the excuse doesn’t matter. The instructions are usually tossed away with the warranty information and the new owner goes off in search of the first informative YouTube video for instruction.

  • When it turns out the YouTube video is for last year’s model, one of several things will happen. Somebody will produce a YouTube video for this year’s model (although some of the videos are so bad I suspect a competitor produced them).
  • Based on their complete lack of understanding, the new owner will write a bad review for the product.
  • The new owner will call the support number in hope of step by step instructions, thus tying up the system, and giving the support staff migraine headaches.
  • Somebody will remember that engineers usually understand these things and ask me or one of my brethren to decipher its operation. My response is always, “where is the instruction manual,” only to be rewarded with a garbage covered (that’s typically where they find it), Lilliputian, instruction manual.

Ten years ago, when instructions were reasonable sized, I was always happy to show off by being helpful in translating manufacturing gibberish to human comprehensible instructions.  Five years ago, I accepted this as my fate for being competent.  This year, after struggling with a variety of tiny instruction manuals,  I’ve resolved to turn over a new leaf.

I still intend to help people with their new gadgets but only after I extract a promise from them. When you start seeing reviews containing the phrase, “Instructions were so tiny as to be unusable,” you’ll know what I asked them to do.

This isn’t a copyrighted phrase, feel free to use it in your own reviews. Maybe together we can convince the manufacturers this is a bad trend.


© 2017 – 2019, Byron Seastrunk. All rights reserved.