May 2013
By Kyle Wiens

Image: © chode/ 123rf.com

Kyle Wiens is the co-founder and CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community. iFixit is dedicated to helping people everywhere keep their hardware running longer. In 2011, he started Dozuki, a software company that helps manufacturers create effective step-by-step work instructions and service documentation.

kyle[at]ifixit.com
www.ifixit.com

The power of free manuals – how a global repair community aims to fix the world

An online community site changes the way we look at our devices – and at technical documentation. How iFixit creates user manuals that help to fix the world.

When I was 18, my laptop slipped off the corner of the bed. The iBook fell onto the floor and broke – a single accident that changed the course of my entire life. That moment indirectly lead to the creation of two companies – iFixit and Dozuki – and drove two college freshmen to invent a brand new form of documentation.

At the time my computer broke, I was a freshman Computer Science student at Cal Poly University in California. I’d always had a penchant for tinkering, and I decided that I wanted to repair the computer myself instead of buying a new one. After all, mine was a good little computer. It had served me well throughout the years; it didn’t deserve to die before its time. So I searched the Internet for Apple’s official iBook service manual. The service manual wasn’t anywhere to be found. I learned that weekend that Apple didn’t like to share repair information with the public.

Not to be defeated, I wheedled Luke Soules, my roommate and a first-year Industrial Engineering major, into helping me out. We were both engineers, after all. We should be able to figure out how to fix a computer, we told ourselves.

As it turned out we were wrong. After some poking and prodding and guessing, we managed to take the computer apart and replace the broken part, but – without instructions – we weren’t able to get the iBook back together correctly. It took a long time, some strong language, and a ton of frustration, but, eventually, the computer whirled back to life again. Unfortunately, it never worked as well as it did before we tried to repair it.

Luke and I learned something from this experience: people need reliable, easy-to-understand repair information. Apple didn’t make the information publicly available, so we decided to write our own repair instructions for Apple devices – from scratch. We dismantled an Apple computer, wrote a repair manual, and put it online for free. The first weekend, we got over 10,000 hits. And so, iFixit was born: a free, open source, publicly-editable database of repair manuals.

Fix it yourself – from espresso machines to iPods

Ten years later, and iFixit is the only organization on the Web with a repair manual for every single Apple product on the market. Those initial manuals have spawned an entire ecosystem of repair information – not just for Apple products or even computers, but for anything that is fixable. iFixit hosts over 10,000 repair guides, on everything from espresso machines to iPods. And that number grows every single day, as iFixit’s user community authors add more guides to our site.

iFixit is based on one simple premise: it should be easy for people to learn how to fix things. And it worked. Millions of people – from New York to Alaska, Tibet to the Faroe Islands – have used our guides. They have saved money, have kept their devices out of landfills, and they have fixed something completely on their own.

As the company’s founders, iFixit has taught us how powerful repair, service, and maintenance information can be: How it can teach people to do amazing things, how it can bring people together, and how it can solve institutional problems.

A new kind of documentation

Teaching people how to fix delicate electronics is incredibly hard – especially if they don’t have any previous repair experience. When we first started iFixit, Luke and I asked ourselves, “How can we make our instructions so simple that absolutely anyone can follow them?” We looked around for inspiration: we combed through instructional websites, old IT repair manuals, and giant three-ring binders full of computer guides and assembly information. Frankly, what we found disappointed us.

Every single day, technology races ahead. Every day, some visionary comes up with a design for the next life-changing gadget, or software, or manufacturing machine. Every single day, our lives are enriched through new forms of innovation. But for some reason that Luke and I didn’t understand, documentation has stayed exactly the same: static, difficult-to-understand, lifeless books of information. Even online instruction manuals were suffering from a lack of imagination. They were PDFs, essentially books copy-and-pasted into a digital format. That wasn’t good enough.

If we really wanted iFixit’s user community to complete their repairs successfully, Luke and I decided that we had to go back to the drawing board. We needed to invent a new form of documentation – one that felt interactive and real, like an expert was standing at your shoulder telling you which screwdriver to use, where that tiny wire goes, and what steps should be approached with special care.

Over the years, we developed some pretty strong opinions about documentation, and about what makes it effective. These are the principles that iFixit was built on:

  1. Great instructions make people awesome: Instructions are important. Done right, a manual teaches someone how to do something they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. Plus, it keeps them working safely and swiftly.
  2. Information needs to grow better over time: Instructions go out of date far too quickly. Manuals need to be easy to update, easy to edit, and easy to change. That way manuals never get old; they just get better.
  3. People need manuals as mobile as they are: Instructions that go where people go – under cars, in the field, jammed into tight corners. Mobile instructions on phones and tablets give manuals a farther reach.
  4. High quality media makes documentation more effective: Sometimes, words aren’t good enough. Videos, diagrams, and (especially) photos make text instructions easier to follow.
  5. The best manuals make hard things easy to learn: Great instructions are as transparent as you can make them. They should be so simple, so instructive, so detailed, that absolutely anyone can complete them.
  6. Communities grow around content: Interactive manuals encourage people to share their knowledge and find better ways of doing things. Feedback and Q&A features should be a part of every manual.

A real-world education

It didn’t take us long to figure out that, in terms of documentation style, we were doing things differently than everyone else – and, maybe, a different perspective could be a good thing. We started partnering with Cal Poly University to bring iFixit’s guide-writing techniques into the college classroom.

We wanted to give students an experience in how much impact technical writing can have. As part of the project, student groups receive a single device to work on. They open it up, figure out what makes it tick, and build their own repair guides with step-by-step instructions and high-resolution photos. Once the guides are peer-tested and iFixit-approved, they go live on our site and actual people get to use them.

Doing the project gives students a sense of how critically important repair guides are. Sometimes, the guides a student group posts are the only repair resource available for that device. And people use them. Some student guides have been viewed over 10,000 times. As they check the page views, the students eventually come to understand that their work is making a difference – and not just to the person who completes the repair. Great instructions can make the whole world better.

Keeping gadgets from becoming landfill

Every single year, 20 to 50 million tons of e-waste are generated worldwide. It’s growing “at three times the rate of other kinds of rubbish, fuelled by gadgets’ diminishing lifespan and the appetite for consumer electronics among the developing world’s burgeoning middle classes,” says The Economist. And it’s only going to get worse. The volume and weight of global e-scrap will more than double in the next 15 years, Pike Research reports.

E-waste has a habit of finding it’s way across the ocean to places with comparatively lax safety and environmental standards, like Guiyu in southeast China and Agbogbloshie in Ghana. It provides a lot of people with a steady livelihood, but it’s also an incredibly dangerous career. Workers, including children, do their jobs without the protection of masks and gloves. What they can’t repair or reuse is dismantled for resources. Sometimes, the easiest way to get to the precious metals inside electronics, like copper, is to set them on fire or dissolve them in acid baths. Then toxic chemicals leach into the air, the water, and the soil – and stays there, poisoning people for generations to come.

Recycling old electronics is a better option than just throwing them away, but it’s not a real solution. We cannot yet recover many materials, including a number of rare earth metals in electronics. Only 20 out of 50 elements in a cell phone, for example, are recoverable in recycling. Plus, it takes massive amounts of energy and resources to produce a single chip in even the most mundane of electronics. The IT and Environment Initiative reports that a 2 gram, 32 MB memory chip requires 1.7 kg of fossil fuels and chemicals to manufacture and use. Recycling and incinerating an electronic wastes the embodied energy in the device; reuse and repair, on the other hand, keep the device around longer, so it can go on (at a more affordable price) to a second, third, or fourth owner.

Every guide that a student writes is a real-world education in just how powerful great instructions can be. Since 2009, the project has expanded to 13 universities and thousands of students. Their contributions will go on to make a difference in the world long after the students finish their course – and that’s something students can be proud of.

Instructions can remake businesses

We designed our guides to be different, to be better. We hear repair stories from people everyday – men, women, and children around the world who used our guides to fix iPads, cell phones, MP3 players, and more.

Somewhere along the line, it occurred to us, that our guide-making technology might be useful for more than just fixing electronics. If our guides could teach people with absolutely no experience to perform high-level repairs, we figured they could help people learn how to do just about everything.

We opened up our guide-making software, Dozuki, to companies interested in dramatically reimagining their work instructions and service manuals. Instead of compiling instructions in massive, unwieldy binders that gathered dust on some shelf, we thought that instructions should be put where workers really needed them – on the shop floor. Deployed on iPads and always within reach, we felt that effective instructions could standardize work, train new employees quickly, and enable a more productive, safer workflow.

And they did. Manufacturers, in particular, have used Dozuki’s guide-making technology with great effect. We’ve partnered with industry giants like Haas to completely revamp their work instructions and service documentation. At Cal Poly University, our work instructions cut down student training time for machine maintenance by 75%. At International Telematics, our step-by-step service documents, deployed in the field, helped the company realize a 60% reduction in support requests, despite a 300% growth in the number of installations per week.

Rethinking documentation

As much as people sometimes disparage technical writing and instruction manuals, they are incredibly important. Manuals and guides are teachers – they can accomplish amazing things. iFixit guides have empowered millions of people to fix their electronics – which has kept countless electronics out of incinerators and landfills. In the business world, Dozuki guides help companies make huge productivity gains. But our experience has taught us that in order to be really effective, documentation has to be drastically rethought. Guides and manuals have to be designed to be effective in the world we live in today – not the world that we lived in 40 years ago. It’s the only way that documentation will ever get the respect and the attention it deserves.