Instruction manuals

Looks like this section of the forum is rather quiet, but I will give it a try.

I am new to toy design, but what I really care about is applying design know-how to education. I am in Taiwan and other than my own industrial design work, I work with local rural schools to host different extra-curriculum activities and workshops for the students. I hope one day I will be hosting workshop for the teachers instead. Anyways, that’s a long story.

This semester, I started a program that aims to provide exposure of mechanical designs to students. The school gave me two periods in the morning (about 1h20m) for six weeks. My plan is the following general process. 1. Experience, 2. Understand, 3. Create. The school assigned me their 4th graders.

For the first phase of the program, I brought a whole bunch of the current generation of Zoids, which are mechanical dinosaurs and creatures that mimics movements. The toys are to be assembled by the player, and are either powered by electric motor or spring loaded mechanisms. Anyways, I love them and you should check them out on youtube or something.

So what happened was completely outside of my expectation. A good portion of the kids did not even know what to do with the instruction manual. Many of them found the experience challenging (but fun). Now, these Zoids toys are definitely rated for kids below their age, and the current generation toys are way easier then how they were when I was a kid. What happened was these kids have very little exposure to self-assembled toys, therefore lack the experience and “tactical approach” to tackle the problem. I realized that “patience” is the key to managing this task, and these kids have yet to learn that. They are too eager and put parts together regardless the step sequence, and could not calm themselves down enough to observe details on the correct orientation of the parts as shown on the manual graphics.

These kids, although live in rural village (rural in Taiwan’s case), their parents mostly use smartphones to keep them occupied. So what I observed ( I also ran a week-long workshop there in the summer) is a huge lack of interest in knowledge or anything that requires a process before you can enjoy the result. This is inline with rapid-satisfaction nature of electronic-games as well as the spoon-fed nature of Taiwanese education. I think similar situation is happening else where in the world and I’m wondering how we should approach the idea of “play as a process” for future children?

Oh wow, that is kind of sad. Do the kids play with Legos or anything like that?

In case anyone needs to buff up on their Zoid history:

No clue why you are singling out these kids. This quote can be used for all humans. Period.

I would argue if the Zoids are incorrectly assembled, it is a design flaw of the Zoids. Not reading a manual is entirely foreseeable. Risk management 101 stuff.

I bought two small sets of bootleg Legos for the ones who simply gave up on the Zoids. Well, I made the wrong judgement. The two sets were small and looked simple, but they weren’t. The parts are about 75% the size of real Legos, and there were a lot of parts in that box, like, a lot! The kid also gave up the moment she was overwhelmed by the instruction manual. Now, this particular kid has learning confidence issue. She doesn’t alright in regular interaction with the teacher in class, not particular fast in her academics but manageable, but for things that she hasn’t done before, she has the tendency of giving up like that’s her default solution. Anyways, I will go hunt for a set of real Lego. The bootleg ones cost so much less than the real thing!

I’d disagree. I am not singling out these kids. Even the teacher was surprised that they had trouble with the instruction manual. Taiwanese teachers have always just used syllabus provided to them because that’s how they are trained. The class teacher too assumed that the toys should be fine for these kids but it turns out that they have very little exposure to physical toys that require patience and observation. Many of them are already playing with smartphone games.

As a reference, my friend whose kid was also 4th grade played with these toys as well, he didn’t have any problem or found it particularly challenging. My friend had exposed him to LEGO since a young age, so that experience and ability with LEGOs came in handy. I also have my relative’s boy, similar age, play with the Zoids, no problem either.

I’d also disagree that the Zoids have design flaw as per your perspective. The components all assemble to form a complex mechanical powertrain, transferring one motion into multiple different motions. The part assembly is sequential. You can put two halves together, but there are parts that need to go into the two halves that were neglected by the kids. It’s like saying putting two halves of a transmission gear box casing together without any of the gears inside should still work or else it’s a design flaw? Or are you implying that those two halves shouldn’t be able to be put together without the components that were supposed to go inside? Either way, I can’t agree.

What I always loved about legos is there is what you can build with the instructions, and then the open ended play that follows. As a kid I always built the things with the instructions, played with it for like 5 minutes, and then threw those instructions out and built all kinds of stuff… I also remember asking for specific sets just because it had a particular part… so it might be interesting to see what they do with more open ended play?

BTW, I think it is awesome you are doing this. What led up to working with the school?


I can think of several solutions to solve the problem you posed. Why does an end user need to provide solutions to problems that the designer can easily solve?

any update? How did introducing the real Lego’s go?

Wrapped it up a few weeks ago, here’s the video:

It was a roller coaster ride. These bunch of kids really have little exposure to logical thinking. Imagine a whole community that is deeply influenced by folk culture. The school itself is surrounded by three big local temples, and the kids themselves are obsessed with temple culture as well. On top of that, smartphones didn’t really propel civilization in the way we’ve hoped. For me, I grew up with computer as a tool to help me learn and be productive. The entertainment aspect of computers and phones come as secondary. However for the younger generation, computer isn’t something that everyone has, and smartphones are for entertainment rather than for productivity. Kids of this generation think within the frame, and when you take them outside into the great outdoors, they begin to complain “how boring” and return to their smartphone while sitting under the sky of endless possibility. The way I reason this is, when kids are raised with smart phones, the smart phone experience is more like fast food. It offers quick and instant gratification and satisfaction, therefore it is easy to be addicted. A kid who grows up in the outdoors sees the lack of boundary as endless potential. Every stick, leaf, pinch of sand can be a source of fun and expression. I have seen kids from both worlds, and it’s amazing how much further the latter can last in terms of endurance in their real world challenges.

Anyways, it started rocky. I was surprised by the instruction manual thingy, but they surprised me at the “understand” phase where I taught them basic mechanical designs. They were really engaged and even after a month gap between sessions, they still remembered the things I taught them. The “create” phase was really rocky too. The boys group were fast to act but had absolutely no endurance. The group fall apart quickly but ended up still making something. However they have much better understanding of mechanics. The girls started really slow, but they kept to the same theme and eventually pulled it through. However these bunch of kids lack discipline and are still very much “chaos in their minds”. I say this because I am currently running the same program with another school. This second school is even more rural (in the mountains), only has eight students from 1st to 6th grade, but they act like a very organized team, very eager to play, learn and act. I am very impressed. Kids with excellent potentials, but the teachers not so much.

Here’s an earlier program I ran at the same(first) school during the summer break. This was the time when I barely knew them, so a lot of “shockers” for me and my team:

This is a loooong story. I lived most of my live overseas, received education from different systems and I eventually found myself enjoy the US college experience most. After a few years in corporate, I came back to Taiwan to complete my national service, which I opted to teach at a rural school for a year. This was the second time I had exposure to kids, the first being a volunteer program at a inner city day care program in Pontiac Mi. My year at this rural school was simply wonderful. The kids were awesome, and I used my skills being a designer to help them. For example, I was tasked to help a few students who needed more help than the others. I identified their real problems using skills from design research and ethnographic interview skills, and I formulated learning courses as well as teaching materials as an industrial designer to quickly tackle these issues. Most of these issues have to do with untaught life experiences that most of us take granted for, such as the concept of time, and the fact that these kids have different modes of attention span. Once I ironed these issues, the kids learned at amazing speed. I also used my workshop design and execution skills to host weekly classes for the whole school by myself. I was collaborating with my friends abroad to bring interactive contents to the class with sights and sounds from all over the world. It would easily take me three full work days just to prep for a 30min class. In summery, I realized that I am much more valuable as a industrial designer helping kids in the rural than being just “one of the many” in the corporate world.

After I finished the national service, I was offered a full time teaching job at one of Taiwan’s most competitive ID program. I taught there for the next five years and I was extremely frustrated with the current situation of Taiwan and especially in education. Basically, everything I cared about, I had no way of making meaningful changes. Eventually stress took a major toll on my health, so I decided to quit and return to my original path of developing my own work and finding a way back to utilizing ID know how in education. So I am doing these out of pocket. I approached these schools and convinced them to let me run programs with their students. Taiwanese education system is very conservative, most schools and teachers are very defensive and will not accept any interaction from outside of the system. They see it as a threat. Therefore I am very lucky to have found these two schools for even willing to let me try. Working with kids gives me genuine happiness and caring about them makes me feel useful. With adults… not so much haha!

Eventually I still want to find a way to develop a business model out of this ( ID for education). So far there are some red tapes in Taiwan that is making it very difficult. For example, say I am hired by a non-profit to run school extra curriculum workshops, they will only pay in “hourly fee”. This only includes the time in class, not time to prep, which takes up most of the effort. I see this as an insult to the profession, so I rather do it for free and have more freedom.

I had an attic full of LEGOs, the most of anyone in the wide vicinity at least. Hundreds of sets. And I probably spent more than most with them, being an only child.

As such I grew up to be quite the LEGO purist.

There is the LEGO heap meant for open-ended play and constructional exploration, and then there’s the LEGO meant to be assembled according to the manual. They are to be kept strictly separate. There’s the construction site, the labs, so to say, and there’s the city, the scene, the miniature world.
Sometimes I devised improvements of sets and implemented them in the city, but usually the original designs were better.

My point is: it’s hugely important to be able to follow strict routines. Self-discipline begins there, almost in any professional field. Even singing and dance.
So if kids are unable to do that there’s a huge problem. And you’ve pinpointed it already - they’re hooked into a system for instant gratification. It short-circuits their amygdala to provide pleasure shots like a drug. They need to be taken out of it immediately. And the parents are responsible for lack of supervision. So I would only stimulate to try to keep training them the way you are. And if it fails it fails, until it doesn’t. Even meditation or some other type of mindful activity without a clear goal they could be judged upon would help. That said there needs to be open-ended exploration as well.

New educational regimes tend to focus on self-directed learning but there needs to be some top-down discipline instilled as well, or people will simply never learn what they perceive as being uncomfortably hard.

It’s difficult to comment on the cultural or societal aspects without knowing the context, but I do find interesting looking at play and rule following.

Watching my 2.5 year old daughter play has totally opened my eyes. I had so much LEGO when I was a kid.

I got her “real” LEGO (not DUPLO) much earlier than the “recommended” age on the box (I think it says 3-5 and I probably bought it when she was 1.5). Aside from the super tiny 1 brick dots which are even hard for an adult to place, she was able to fumble her way through figuring out how to connect stuff.

First it was free play and manual dexterity challenge.

Now, she seems to “design” what she is building (“Daddy, I’m making a house, this is the kitchen”), and if I put a brick someplace, she tells me she doesn’t want it there.

She also looks at the instruction books and wants to make what it shows. She can’t, and doesn’t try to really follow the steps, but understand I think the concept of these parts can make this thing.

All that being said, the childs’ mind is an amazing thing and always developing. Through age, experience and exposure to new stimuli you never know what is possible.

I’ve done a lot of teaching from grade 4 to university ID level and no matter what it never really goes as planned. Educating the educator I think is part of the experience!


Since the computer industry stopped putting printed manuals into product boxes, a culture of “I’ll just look it up online” has spread.

And what do you have online? Youtube VIDEO tutorials where someone else’s hands and voice guide you through it.

In my day absolutely everything came with a printed manual.

Even computer games had a little booklet in the box explaining the main gameplay mechanisms and keys or buttons you press.

Today’s kids live in a world of ADDICTIVE technologies which GAMIFY sattisfaction.

It doesn’t help that computer games have been DUMBED DOWN in terms of gameplay complexity, because apparently that sells more copies.

These kids can’t be blamed - it was ADULTS who placed them in a world of INSTA-SATT.

A smartphone cannot replace reading longer texts, examining diagrams, working with your hands or designing and sketching with pen and paper.

I also don’t blame kids for having ADHD like lack of focus and patience.

If I had grown up with Youtube, TickTock and Instagram I might have been the same.

The people who designed Social Media and Smartphones simply do not care what happens when kids use this stuff daily.

I also meet increasing numbers of adults who seem to have been ADHD’d by the little interactive slab in their hands.