Soapbox: Return of the Learn — Hardware Companies Teach Tech


The times they are a-changin’. Companies selling electronics to makers, hobbyists, and professionals will also need to teach and inspire. Selling the bits just isn’t enough. This week’s Soapbox is all about the growing trend of hardware makers becoming online educational destinations in addition to simply supplying product. Good information is a form of advertising, and good information is what modern-day hardware companies will need to provide to compete for attention and sales. If you’re a maker or company considering launching a product, you’ll need to create great documentation. And if you’re a customer, you’ll make your purchase decision on who has the best tutorials and support — costs always counts too : ). Here’s a look at hardware companies that have learning resources right now as part of their offerings, and what’s ahead.

Below are just some of the many hardware makers with their own educational resources. Some are further along their way to being an educational resource, others are strictly product documentation. In alphabetical order:

Adafruit 240

Adafruit has a tutorial section, and they’re currently in beta for (Disclosure: I work at Adafruit.)

Adafruit 239-1

Arduino’s tutorial page has dozens and dozens of tutorials for core functions. Arduino also has a great foundations page as well as a hacking page.

Adafruit 241

Digi XBee’s Ever since Rob Faludi joined Digi they’ve released a Tumblr and a learning site, along with Matt Richardson of MAKE, who’s also creating examples. It’s a great resource.

Adafruit 242

DIY Drones, ArduCopter, and ArduPlane at

Adafruit 243

Evil Mad Scientist (EMSL) has some of the best documentation online for their kits. They’ve even created comic-book style instructions. Check out theirwiki and example.

Adafruit 244

iFixit: Besides the zero-day teardown photos, iFixit provides complete guides on fixing tons of Apple products (and anything else). And of course, they sell the tools you need to take apart, repair, and replace many things. They also created a documentation system called Dozuki that powers Make: Projects.

Adafruit 245

littleBits has a community site with lessons, classes, and projects.

Adafruit 246

SparkFun has a tutorials section and a new site with upcoming tutorials.

Adafruit 247

Sparkle Labs’ is a resource from one of my favorite maker companies. The site has Arduino lessons and more.

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Make: Projects is the place where you can get MAKE’s documentation for many kits in the Maker Shed as well as access tons of projects from issues of MAKE and from the wider MAKE community. Built on iFixit’s Dozuki platform. (Disclosure: I work for MAKE.)

Adafruit 249

MakerBot’s gigantic wiki hosts instruction manuals and docs. Their documentation site is here.

Adafruit 250

Parallax’s is what I consider the gold standard for documentation. I think anyone who makes hardware for the hobbyist market has to admire the skill and care that go into the Parallax documentation. (Check it out — it’s massive).

Adafruit 251

Wayne and Layne is a new-ish company on the maker scene, and they came out swinging. I really like their kits, and the documentation Wayne and Layne provide (Blinky!).

An interesting trend worth noting is the word “learn” in the URLs of some of the companies:,,, In the future, we may all instinctively look for the “learn” in front of the company URL. Google has “code,” so maybe learn is the next one we’ll see lots of.

Not listed above but worth mentioning: Bildr and Instructables. I wanted to include both of these – they do not sell hardware to customers (yet), but they’re excellent resources. Many companies have used Instructables for their how-tos.

Just for makers? S/He with the best tutorials wins.

This isn’t anything new — we’ve partially lost our repair culture, but not the desire to learn. New technology is coming along so fast that the companies that can teach, train, and empower their customers are the ones that are going to thrive. Sell crummy stuff that breaks, have a customer once — teach them, spend time with them, empower them — keep that customer for life.

If you’re a camera maker or a phone maker and can teach someone all of your features, they’re less likely to purchase a different brand later. It’s a huge ordeal to completely learn a new OS or hundreds of settings on a device.

The cheap and fast sale is always easy, but how can you help the users and allow them to maximize all the features you put in your product and share their knowledge and recommendations with other? Tutorials, videos, great documentation, public forums, GitHub repos with code you’ve developed for customers. While you’re at it, blog about how you make things, and create videos on a regular basis to share your expertise.

This isn’t just the maker ecosystem. Over 10 years ago when I worked at a creative firm that helped companies with their business problems in the retail/tech arena, we pitched to both Sony and Nikon the idea of having the best camera site online for learning how to use a camera (related, one of them said “no one will ever share their photos online!”). Both camera makers had (and still have) the same problem: most customers do not know most of the features, the instructional manuals are awful, churn is high. This is a problem for anyone selling hardware. RadioShack had a company slogan — “You’ve got questions, we’ve got answers” — it was a good start. I’d like to see them bring that back, but Apple has the Genius Bar that’s packed each day from open to close. It’s a tough race.

As Google and Microsoft become hardware makers on their own (besides working with partners), they’ll need to figure all this out too. The maker movement, in my opinion, is always more nimble and ahead of big companies, so that’s why I think we’re seeing the smart companies doing a lot of documentation and training as part of their offerings. In fact, since many of us do open source hardware, the best documentation will matter the most. The physical bits, not as much, as some of it becomes a commodity (think $20 Arduino-compatibles, etc).

One of the biggest companies in the world, Ikea, is built on providing instructions. I wanted this article to serve as a snapshot we’ll look back at later and see what’s changed, what new players have arrived, and which ones have retired.

So there you go: I think we’ll see companies doing more documentation, more videos, and more teaching — not only to help their customers, but to stay competitive.

Now it’s your turn — post up your comments about the companies and sites you use to learn! Feel free to include ones I’ve mentioned too! (Adafruit, Arduino, Digi’s XBee, Evil Mad Scientist, iFixit, Instructables, littleBits, SparkFun, Sparkle Labs, Make: Projects, MakerBot, Parallax, Wayne and Layne).

14 thoughts on “Soapbox: Return of the Learn — Hardware Companies Teach Tech

  1. Fantastic post! I don’t think you spent enough time on the inspire aspect of your theory. And you guys do such a great job with that! Alas, another post maybe ;)

  2. I’m interested by the freemium aspect of it all. I’ve seen some other places that have tried “information as the paid service”, but that’s definitely not the case here and possibly never the case again. Adafruit et al have been offering the learning aspect as the marketing and how to draw people in and keep them. And the high quality of the instructions ensures that!

    In general, “information wants to be free”, right? And the trend doesn’t seem to be reversing, thanks to the internet. Even large scale education has moved online, with the rise of Udacity, MITx and others. Does this mean the instructables of the world are no longer capable of charging for services? (do they still charge since becoming acquired?) Or does it just mean that we’ll see more of the information based companies moving to make and sell hardware, as you suggested might be possible? Or maybe information based companies will actually have to transition to “service” based companies (which some would argue any information company is these days)?

    Strange and exciting times we live in!

  3. On Return of the Learn. Great article. It is good to see so many companies helping to learn about their products. In the 70s and early 80s you could get free manuals and data books on components but then they seemed to all want you to by them. If you wanted a manual for your self they were expensive. I ran into this in the 80s with robotics. All the current information – even magazines were too expensive for me. I live in Iowa, and while I love it here there is not a lot of people interested in robotics and technology at my level not already in some industry. I work out of my home now so I do not get to interact with people who are doing the stuff we see on the ADAFruit shows and the Make magazine info. I really like reading and learning about the open source technology that is available. We need this so badly in the face of schools cutting technology and music programs in favor of sports. We have a FIRST Robotics team here that does well and is great way for young people to see really state of the art systems. I get to help out with the team which is a great way to pass on as mentors knowledge and attitude of technology to these great students. I would like to add Solarbotics to your list of helpful companies. They have lots of information on there website about their BEAM robotic kits and how to make them. I make solar powered art bots here and they supply me with most of the specialized parts to make these. Thanks for your article! These are exciting times for us all. Great stuff!

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