Useless Assistance: Frustration is Prettier in Pink

Useless Assistance Pretty in PinkTechnical Writer is not listed among Barbie’s 126+ careers since her debut in 1959 (yes, she really has had that many), made all the more apparent this past Christmas when one of her products became the most tweeted useless assistance experience of Christmas 2013: The Barbie® Dreamhouse® Playset.

Having two young daughters qualifies me to do this review, despite the amount of Barbie paraphernalia in our home being quite minimal. The daughter that is Barbie play age is more interested in dinosaurs, which according to current paleontological research, never lived in Dreamhouses…

A true Barbie aficionado is 7-year old Elizabeth Rocklage. This Christmas she was the lucky recipient of a Barbie Dreamhouse – a three-level, serviced-by-two-elevators, fully furnished luxury home with lights and sounds throughout, priced at around $200. If you are familiar with the size of a Barbie doll you can imagine the scale of the house, and—perhaps—appreciate the amount of assembly tasks involved.

millie_tweetOne of the first people to tweet their frustration was Elizabeth’s mother Millie Rocklage, an Active Duty US Coast Guard currently based in Suffolk, Virginia. “She LOVES the Barbie Dreamhouse so it was worth it, but holy smokes it was a pain to assemble with the instructions provided!”, said Millie.

So what types of assistance did Mattel® – one of the world’s most famous and powerful toy companies – provide to assemblers? Just like the Dreamhouse, there are three levels:

First Floor: Comedic Faux Instructions

An old saying goes “How something starts is how it ends.” The introduction approach used by Mattel is either the most clever or misguided stage of the assembly experience – depending on how you interpret it. The first paper you find in the box is a colorful sheet featuring the Barbie and Ken characters from the animated series “Life in the Dreamhouse” as they prepare to assemble their new home.

Barbie Dreamhouse Comic Instruction Sheet

Clever? Misguided? Entertaining? Insulting? You decide.

“The comedic introduction was entertaining but kind of insulting at the same time,” said Millie. “It was funny until I realized that the people who designed this knew that we were about to embark on a REALLY frustrating experience and were making jokes about it.”

Millie’s point was echoed by many other tweeters. The sheet does match the tone of the animated series, but should have been worded differently to provide more motivation to the adult and child about to tackle the difficult assembly. It was also a missed opportunity to introduce all the forms of assistance available: the real flatpack instructions, YouTube assembly video, support site, etc. The only link provided on the sheet is with “Watch Us Online!” under it, seemingly implying you can watch them assemble the house there. It in fact leads to the animated series’ Web site, which is devoid of further support information. It seems to encourage a child on the assembly team to leave and spend time on the Web site instead of helping out the adult. Or maybe that’s the whole point?

Second Floor: Flatpack Instructions with Vaguely Illustrated Steps

After basking in motivation and inspiration from Barbie and Ken themselves, it is time to move on to the real assembly instructions. The first page hits you with a barrage of warnings and legal disclaimers in a dozen languages and 5pt font. Within the textual clutter is information about the Mattel Customer Service Web site (where you have to search for the appropriate Dreamhouse page), and phone support lines.

Also prominent on the page is an illustration of all the parts: no numbering, no suggestions on how to lay them out to facilitate assembly, and no labels to identify what each thing is. Its only purpose  seems to be to figure out if you have all the necessary parts.

The assembly steps begin on the next page. Millie observed: “The biggest frustration about the paper instructions is that they weren’t labeled well at all.  None of the pieces were labeled, so you had to compare the pieces to the tiny drawings on the page.  One step would have one thing to do, but then the next one would have like 5 steps included in one step.  The progression of the steps didn’t really make sense but actual words would have been REALLY helpful instead of pictures and arrows. At one point, my cat decided to take a nap on the instructions and I truly feel like them being a comfy spot for the cat to sleep was the most productive role that the instructions served.”

With the exception of the last step (Expand the house!), the only text in the assembly instructions indicates what floor you’re working on (first, second, top). The assembler has to figure out themselves what it is they are assembling and how.

That's Step 2, not Floor 2,

That’s Step 2, not Floor 2, and  we’re still trying to figure out if it’s a way to charge your cell phone…

“Pictures AND text would have made a huge difference for the paper instructions.  I wish the pieces would have been labeled as clearly as the stickers were.  The sticker placement instructions were the only part of the assembly that was clear but most of it was done at the end, so I was too annoyed to really appreciate it,” said Millie.

The illustrations are full of distracting detail, bordering on photographic. Their small size made matters worse. A more spare and noiseless aesthetic should have been used. An opportunity was also missed to boost the child’s anticipation and excitement by adding some content directed at them (for example, when assembling a particular room mention something that occurred there in an episode of the animated series).

The Dreamhouse Customer Service page contains two versions of the instructions: one seemingly ready for sending to a print shop (includes folding information and various other printer specifications) and a slightly more legible, home printer-friendly version (a whopping 99 MB).

Top Floor: Video

The most helpful form of assistance for Millie and others (evidenced by the half-million views and comments) was the “How to Assemble the 2013 Barbie Dreamhouse” YouTube video produced by Mattel. In it Emily and Jared (bearing a slight resemblance to Barbie and Ken) walk assemblers through the steps.

“The video was really helpful and I wish that I had known about it from the beginning.   It would have been great if they would have included all of the pieces instead of just the house assembly.  Perhaps it was because I was so frustrated by the paper instructions, but the couple featured were kind of annoyingly perfect though, so animation would have been fine with me,” said Millie.

The video more clearly visualizes the steps than the flatpack instructions, and the presenters do a good job of describing what each part is, what it is used for, and how to place it. For example, what I thought was a regular railing on the second floor from the no-text drawings is really a “privacy screen”.

Example_Tweet_3The video content does skip some steps, most notably the putting up of the side walls, and does not follow the sequence in the flatpack instructions exactly. Despite encountering many frightful situations while defending U.S. seas and coastline, Millie was not prepared for the one provided by a particular instruction sequence difference in the video. “The most amusing part of the assembly process for me was when I accidentally pressed the toilet button while trying to finish putting together the shower.  It scared me and also made me wonder why battery placement wasn’t the final step in the assembly process in the video.”

Example_Tweet_6The assembly video can be substantially improved in a number of respects. It lacks a quick agenda or overview of all the steps to be performed at the very beginnings, so the assembler knows what needs to be done and plan accordingly. On-screen text and graphics should be used to segment the video to enable finding a particular step easily when searching using the progress bar. Also, there are a lot of awkward cuts and camera movements, including lots of camera shaking. Though in HD, it is not the quality recording I would expect from a company as large as Mattel. Maybe a future one can be done with the actual characters from the animated series.

I have to commend Mattel for not blocking commenting on the YouTube page (all worth a read). Perhaps because they noticed  that the video was well received, Mattel added a second short video to address a problem with the elevators.

Three Hours to Success

“It took me about three hours to put the Dreamhouse together,” said Millie. “The first 90 minutes were using the practically worthless paper instructions.  Then it took about 30 minutes to put together after I found the YouTube video.  The last hour was assembling the accessories that the YouTube video conveniently forgot to address and putting on the last of the stickers.”

If anything the Dreamhouse instructions demonstrate that even big companies like Mattel, with significant resources and money at their disposal, struggle to find a balance between two extremes of over-simplified vagueness and mind-numbing complexity in their assembly instructions. Two lessons learned are quite clear: though isolating particularly difficult steps is important, all steps should be clearly depicted using adequate text and illustrations. And, when you offer multiple forms of user assistance across different channels, clarify how to access all user assistance in each channel.

Here are some additional suggestions for Mattel based on Tweets and personal observations:

Suggestions for Flatpack Instructions

  • Keep the detail in illustrations low.
  • Suggest how the parts should be laid out to facilitate assembly.
  • Label all parts in the illustrations with at least numbers/letters.
  • Draw images to scale.
  • Ensure the illustrations are an adequate size.
  • Make sure the video and flatpack instruction procedures are consistent.
  • Show only one or two actions per step.
  • Use text to describe steps and clarify actions.
  • Use lots of white space.
  • Make the step frames clearly distinguishable.

Suggestions for Video Instructions

  • Include an agenda that provides a quick overview of all the assembly steps.
  • Demonstrate steps by performing and explaining them at the same time.
  • Spoken step narration should engage, reassure and encourage the assembler.
  • Use text and graphics to segment the steps and provide additional information.
  • Ensure the video is on a service like YouTube and have commenting enabled.
  • Record in high definition (minimum of 720p).
  • Use good cinematography (no shaky camera work, poor transitions, etc.).

Three hours, a couple of videos, some cryptic wordless instructions, a few web searches, and Millie Rocklage finished the Dreamhouse in time for Elizabeth to enjoy on Christmas morning.


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