Evolution of manuals: UX inspiration from history



Limestone tablet engraved with pictographic writing. It comes from the Mesopotamic city of Kish (Iraq), dated from 3 500 BC. It is drawn in real size, approximately.
Limestone tablet engraved with pictographic writing. It comes from the Mesopotamic city of Kish (Iraq), dated from 3 500 BC. It is drawn in real size, approximately.

Kish tablet is considered the oldest written document. I couldn’t find the translation information but it’s said that it was written in proto-cuneiform. Proto-cuneiform was the first form of writing and was used in Mesopotamia around 3200 BC. It is generally agreed that proto-cuneiform was developed from earlier pictographic symbols and was used to record economic transactions. Around 2600 BC, the first alphabetical symbols began to appear in proto-cuneiform texts. Since proto-cuneiform uses symbols it’s safe to assume if there were instructions written in it it would have some imagery to the instruction.

In the image below we can see the clay tablet from 1 400BC-1 200BC, with instructions on how to make red glass. The British Museum described the writing style of this manual as

Written in a slightly obscure style so as to be understood only by skilled craftsmen.

the clay tablet from 1 400BC-1 200BC, with instructions on how to make red glass
Photo belongs to the British Museum

Reviewing several samples of Mesopotamian clay tablets I couldn’t see any images used, except for the usage of seals. The seals, however, were used as a signature, doesn’t seem like there was the intention to use it as an image. The reason for that is the cost of such seals to be made, since making a seal would require hiring a skillful artist.

Bamboo slips were commonly used for writing in ancient China, with the earliest surviving examples dating back to the 5th century BC.

To look at how instructions were provided in such a medium, we can look at this decimal multiplication table (Warring States period c. 475–221 BC). This table was found among the Tsinghua Bamboo Slips. Here, ink dots separate a multiplier and a multiplicand (at the top and at the right) from the product. And while it’s hard to see without the numeric system that we are used to, it looks almost exactly like the multiplication table that we use now. The only differences are that it has more numbers and 1/2 as the starting point. It shows a sample of a rather old but quite user-friendly approach in instructions, that is clearly working, considering we still use the same layout.

Decimal multiplication table. The Tsinghua bamboo strips. Photo belongs to the Tsinghua University
Decimal multiplication table. The Tsinghua bamboo strips. Photo belongs to the Tsinghua University

Also, the first signs of specifying a genre of writing appeared during the third century BCE to the third century CE in China. This is an improvement in the readability and organization of the text.

Overall since bamboo slips were more flexible, some included drawings and more complex layouts. So instructions in theory could have been more user-friendly.

Egypt had a genre called “Sebayt” which meant instruction or teaching. Many of the earliest Sebayt claim to have been written in the third millennium BCE. Usually, they would be built like ‘‘the instruction which X made for Y.’’ And were more about religious or moral teachings.

However, highly researched the Book of the dead can be seen more like a manual. The Book of the dead is considered to be a guidebook to afterlife realms. Here we may see much more details, pictures, and formatting for better reading. For example, the beginning and end of “spells” in the Book of the Dead were written in red in order to highlight the transitions between spells or for other highlights. Since ancient Egypt was always using art as storytelling it is not surprising to see it in their instructions.

Book of the Dead of Lady Neskhons from Chester Beatty Collection
Book of the Dead of Lady Neskhons from Chester Beatty Collection

Going closer to us in time there is no clear definition of “manual” as a genre of books till approximately 16th century. But before that a lot of instructional or teaching material could be found. Showing diversity in writing style, layouts and usage of images to improve usability and remembering the material.

Following the teaching of art of memory, that states that usage of powerful imagery helps memorizing, Johann Host von Romberch uses a lot of illustrations in his books like this visual alphabet.

On the image is a part of the book with an alphabet that has pictures that correspond to the letters.
Visual alphabet by Johann Host von Romberch from Wellcome Collection

I would say Illuminations(in religious text) as a starting point, the art of memory that just highlighted how good people are at remembering when images are involved, and further inventions in printing just solidify for people usage of images in books that provide instructions.

The first textbook for children, Orbis Pictus, shows yet another step forward in written instructions. The book was written by Czech educator John Amos Comenius and published in 1658. We can see that all the progress in writing and understanding comprehension started to improve instructions. The book contained pictures, and the words were printed in larger print. Each picture is accompanied by a simple sentence. This format is still used today as a way to teach children to read.

The page from the children’s book with illustrations and text that teaches children about the world.
Page from the book “Orbis Pictus” by John Amos Comenius

Looking at the 19th century, we’ll see manuals like “A Complete Manual of the Edison Phonograph” by George E. Tewksbury, that at first glance look just like any manual today, but is very different from what we are used to. That’s where we can go into a bit more detail.

For one thing, the manual had a preface and an introduction which would be surprising to see in a modern manual. Similarly to current manuals, Tewksbury’s manual had pictures of the device with numbers, to explain parts of the device. But such pictures were done for multiple parts of the phonograph, even for parts like the motor and governor, since those parts might require some care from the user. While describing any usage, after mentioning numbers once they get ditched for the name of the part which might get hard to understand and require searching through the text to find the number so then the user could look at the picture.

Picture of the phonograph with numbers to every small detail of the device.
Image from: A Complete Manual of the Edison Phonograph by George E. Tewksbury

To help users find the information they need, the book had short text written on the sides, usually describing the content of the part.

The image depicts part of the manual. On the left side is written, “Ways to clean the brushes” on the right corresponding text with instructions.
Image from: A Complete Manual of the Edison Phonograph by George E. Tewksbury

Overall as we are used to straight-to-the-point manuals, the manual of the Edison phonograph had in some parts a promotional feel to it and carried a lot of thoughts from the author.

The image depicts part of the manual with a text: “Every office man who uses a Phonograph for dictation has methods of doing his work which he believes more expeditious than anybody’s else. But it has always been the author’s opinion that no fixed rules could be laid down for the economy of this service, any more than for any other occupation of the human mind. The elder wisdom of many men and many…”
Image from: A Complete Manual of the Edison Phonograph by George E. Tewksbury

I would say that manuals had to go through transition, and change in a way that will be easy for a regular person to use. While early versions of manuals seem to follow the handbook approach, they intend to teach how to use the device as a subject that a person needs to learn. It’s not surprising since the term “manuals” was also used in books about chemistry and other subjects.

The 20th century’s manuals brought standardization. Manuals became logical, straight to the point, and fairly simple compared to the previous options. There’s not much to say, since manuals were very similar to what we have now. But if the reader is interested in interaction and prior technology, manuals will play a great role in researching that.

Current manuals strive to be as simple as possible, with as little information as possible. Now we have help centers, they can provide troubleshooting and more information if necessary.

Google mini box and what’s inside. Three small cards with one sentence each describing simple steps to begin.
Source: allaboutcircuits.com

Current manuals are not limited to just books or paper. Onboarding manuals for web applications show you directly how to use it on the interface you try to use. With images and animations, there is no limit when you work in a digital space.

The image depicts the onboarding process for the web application Miro, a small card pointing to the tool and showing the usage.
Image from application Miro

Adding to that AR technology allows the creation of learning materials that are more immersive. With the help of augmented reality, instructions can be brought to life, allowing a user to see and interact with three-dimensional images of things that they are studying in real life.

The image depicts the AR possibilities of Google street view. Showing the way to go through the camera on the phone.
Street View by Google

Looking at manuals it’s safe to say they followed the world and followed the evolution of human knowledge. From the hardest instructions like the ones that were written in proto-cuneiform, to the easiest, like current web onboarding instructions. But all those manuals followed the same purpose: to help people learn about some subject, to help them understand and use something. Old manuals can teach us about the people who wrote them. While not everybody wrote them, manuals usually show some specific point of view on something. Showing how other people who used to use something felt about it. It helps us to understand what they could find hard and how they felt about it. When we want to learn more about the experiences of people throughout history, it is safe to say we need to look more into instructions written by them. As we can see instructions, as we know them, were built on the legacy of instructions before it, showing how human progress impacted how instructions were written. How simple texts in hieroglyphics looked so complex to us, and how the usage of images throughout the whole history helped improve the quality of the manuals. While we mostly reviewed layout-related parts of manuals and their history, it’s not all that manuals can teach us. There is still so much more to learn here, but we will stop this story here for now.

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