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User Manuals revisited - Part 1: 'nonreaders' are actually right!


 

...we have entered a vicious circle of — they are badly written because nobody reads them, and nobody reads them because they  are badly written

I have been meaning to write this piece for a long time as my frustration with user manuals has grown stronger and stronger. The source of this frustration is not simply knowing that most people never read manuals unless they are forced to do so when things go wrong. And even then, 64% of people and 24% of women (according to a study by Gadget Helpline based on 75,000 calls) decide to call a help center instead of opening the useless book. Wait a moment, did I just say useless? That's right! That is the reason I am often so angry with user manuals — they are, in most cases, BADLY written! Smart products, smart solutions and ... SILLY manuals. And very few people seem to care apparently — there is me and one more guy living in the mountains in North Carolina...:-) 

 

  ...we have entered a vicious circle of — they are badly written because nobody reads them, and nobody reads them because they  are badly written

 

Seriously, though, there are a few people who do care and if you google "why people don't read manuals," you can find a bunch of more or less insightful articles written by ... technical writers. The conclusion you may draw from all these articles is that we have entered a vicious circle of — they are badly written because nobody reads them, and nobody reads them because they are badly written. Could that be the whole explanation? I think not. I'd rather look at it more broadly and hope to show you how to get out of this awful circle to the benefit of all.

 

...just because we don't need much help to start using an iPhone doesn't mean we will immediately know all the super functions it holds!

 

When things go wrong, we naturally look for somebody or something to blame. I will start with blaming the "intuitive" approach to technology. How many times have you heard it in your life — it's easy, very intuitive. I remember first hearing it from a friend of mine, who was an IT specialist, setting up my very first desktop computer — can't remember exactly what program he referred to but he said I would do fine as it was very intuitive. It wasn't to me, far from it! How could I say anything, though, when it was "easy and intuitive" and I like to think of myself as rather smart and knowledgeable? Am I the only one trapped in this "intuitive" business - not sure how to do it but won't ask/check since it's SO easy? Probably not. That is not to say here that wonderful, easy-to-use products are wrong. Just the opposite — I love Apple (who doesn't?) for their simplicity. However, just because we don't need much help to start using an iPhone doesn't mean we will immediately know all the super functions it holds! [Did you know switching your iPhone into airplane mode lets you charge it twice as fast? I didn't and it saves a lot of time when travelling.] Thank God Apple understood it and offers its manuals online and in the products now. "Intuitive" technology is one reason behind our non-reading approach to manuals.

Now, on to another, quite obvious, reason for our global manual fail — fossilization. If you stop reading for a moment and imagine your parents' TV and your TV today, your parents' phone and your phone today, your parents' typewriter and your computer today ... things have changed, haven’t they? Well, have a look at these two below. Does anything strike you?
I don't know about you but it seems to me little has changed in the user manual business over the years: drawings, arrows, step by step instructions... Like the world hasn't moved forward! It's truly quite amazing that some areas of business can be left behind to such a large extent. Companies seem reconciled with this vicious circle and keep producing user manuals in the form of a book(let) where consumer goods are presented in a dull A-to-Z manner with little or no attention to what users may actually need. In reality, we get 50 or more pages, pretty often in a few languages, of almost uniform text where vital information is simply buried.

 

... nobody uses it. What a waste!


With so much effort and money spent on developing smart products, I find it difficult to understand how one of the easiest and most direct communication channels with end users is neglected that much. And it costs money, too! A manual is developed, somebody translates it, usually into several languages, it is printed, burnt on CDs, packed, and ... nobody uses it. What a waste!

Frustrated I am, then, being one of very few people who read manuals when it's not part of their job (it only sometimes is for me). Well, actually, I don't know anybody else who does, so it's only me. Every new product I buy, be it an iPad or a toaster, I start with a user manual — I read the "before you start" section and skim the rest, paying special attention to maintenance guidelines. As you can see, I do speak from experience and I don't agree with the dawn of manuals. I am ready to accept the dawn of manuals we have known so far, but new ideas are coming and I will share some of them with you quite soon.

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