Mastering the mean telephone machine

In last week’s guest post, my son Robin let us discover the art of abstraction. Using the microwave oven and the smartphone as examples, he wrote about the benefits of making a clear separation between the internal mechanics and the external interface of an apparatus.

But even when appropriate abstraction is made to hide implementations detail from end-users, understanding and utilizing new machinery may be a challenging experience for many people. Technology marketers shouldn’t underestimate the intellectual capabilities of their customers, but they shouldn’t overestimate them either. While engineers and experts may consider a concept or a product simple, the average Jane or Joe may find it hard to understand or to handle. Even the fact that most of today’s articles are shipped with a (often too comprehensive) user guide, does not mean that consumers will actually read the handbook, follow the instructions, and remember them for future occasions.

Recently I stumbled upon a beginner’s guide to telephone use, dated 1917. Of course, for a 21st century digital native it’s child’s play to use a mobile phone (though I wonder if some of today’s kids would still know how to use a plain old wired black telephone set with a rotary dial…) but put yourself in the shoes of an early twentieth century low educated US citizen. Maybe for him or for her that new telephony service wasn’t that straightforward at all. I’m sure he or she has appreciated the sweet and simple stories shown on the images below.


So, long live abstraction! Long live simplicity! And long live user-focused products, with easy understandable user manuals.

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