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Nintendo Labo: a new benchmark in physical assembly instructions

I was immediately intrigued when the Nintendo Labo was announced. It promised a rich augmented-reality gaming experience with controllers made out of relatively inexpensive cardboard. As a technical communicator, one part that was particularly of interest was how they would guide users of all ages into how to construct the elaborate toy-cons, which is what Nintendo calls the cardboard controllers.

For those that aren't familiar with the Nintendo Labo, it is an augmented reality video game system that extends the Nintendo Switch by placing the Switch console and controllers into custom cardboard toy-cons. The toy-cons that must be assembled by the user through a series of folds and connections. Once constructed, the toy-cons are used to play mini-games, where they provide tactile feedback for the activities they simulate.

Having now assembled and played the mini-games available for all the toy-cons in the Variety Kit, the part that surprised me the most was the quality of the instructions. All of the toy-con controllers come on 1 to 6 cardboard sheets with additional parts like plastic rings, rubber bands, and IR reflective tape. This means they need really good instructions to tell users, especially children, how to punch-out the pieces and assemble them. Nintendo delivers on this fantastically.

Nintendo provides interactive step-by-step tutorials to build all the toy-cons. The tutorials feature 3D models of the toy-cons at every stage of construction, which can be zoomed or moved to look at the item from all directions. The instructions perfectly animate each fold required to build the toy-cons.

In my mind, the Nintendo Labo instructions set a new benchmark for any product that requires physical assembly. If the folks at IKEA, to name one example, aren’t furiously designing an app right now to provide a similar experience to put together your MALM drawers, then they are seriously missing the boat. That said, the reality is that the 3D modeling and development effort required for this kind of instructions would make them astonishingly time-consuming and expensive. They would also be difficult to maintain for products that go through frequent iterations or changes.

But, there are still good lessons technical communicators can get out of the Labo instructions, even if they don't have the massive resources of Nintendo. The first one is also one of the most important things for a technical communicator: know your audience. Nintendo has no doubt done massive amounts of play testing and usability studies on the Labo, and understands that people building the toy-cons need impeccable instructions. They also understand that users learn the product as they build more of the toy-cons. This means that certain parts of the instructions, such as how to fully-fold the cardboard creases, only need to be given the first couple times and then can be abridged in later instructions.

Second, is to engage as many learning styles as possible. The Labo instructions provide audio, video, interactivity, and text. These complement each other to reach the largest possible target audience. All the instructions can be paused to look at the items from different angles or fast forwarded or rewinded at any time.

Third, is to consider how things will go wrong for users. So much of technical communication focuses on the “happy path” of a product. Product issues or pitfalls are often only discussed when there is a legal necessity or surge in product returns or technical support. Nintendo includes some short tutorials with the Labo software on how to troubleshoot issues with the Switch controllers as well as how to repair and customize the toy-cons. The classes are taught by a cartoon professor, who the user interacts with by answering questions. There’s even a quiz at the end.

The gaming experience itself has some issues common to previous attempts at AR gaming. Each toy-con powers its own mini-game. While these games are well put together, they only really provide about 30 minutes of fun before they start to feel repetitive. I would really recommend Labo to parents to give their kids the educational experience or makers eager to make their own toy-cons and games using the Toy-Con Garage. For people that are looking primarily for a challenging or rich gaming experience, I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Nintendo Labo pushes the bounds of what’s possible for augmented reality. It provides a ton of lessons for technical communicators who want to improve the quality of their work and who want to push their documentation in new, exciting directions.