How do you read a User Manual?

Subject: How do you read a User Manual?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 15 Jun 2004 21:35:48 -0400

John Posada wrote: <<I'm having a discussion with someone at my company, and unfortunately, he's several layers above me in the company pecking order, so I have to be careful how I approach this with him.>>

True enough. You also have to be a good enough judge of character to determine whether he's the kind of guy who appreciates someone (you) who stands up to him, or one of the (unfortunately common) weasels who insists on "my way or the highway". Different approaches required for each.

<<In a nutshell, he's telling me that users will approach a User's Manual and read it like a novel...they start from the from and read it page after page.>>

It would be illuminating but dangerous to challenge him to produce a single study that indicates this is how people use documentation. For bonus points, ask him to provide any evidence whatsoever that suggests _everyone_ uses manuals the same way, under all circumstances.

That being said, there's no question some people do read the entire manual sometimes. I've done it myself when approaching a new piece of software that I had to master in a tearing great hurry. That approach is completely impractical for typical users, who are thrown into battle with the software after wholly inadequate training (if they get any training at all) and who are given no time to self-educate; it's doubly impractical for large and complex software. Nobody's going to read the Interleaf manuals (about 3 shelf-feet in 1991) like a novel. Trust me on this one.

<<My position is that readers enter the book at any place that contains the content to address their issue at hand.>>

I've recently read various studies that suggest that _most people_ do indeed go straight to the index (or the search function for online materials), find what they're looking for, then set aside the manual. _Nobody_ except us geeks wants to read documentation--heck, it's getting hard to find people who want to read _novels_ as novels these days. Most are prepared to wait for the movie.

<<The impact to this is that he feels information should be organized so that as you get further in the book, you can assume the person already knows whatever it is about the application that got them to that point and never have to address it again, even in passing.>>

As a general rule, that's nonsense. Even the people who do read the book cover to cover once will have forgotten half of what they've read within a week (standard rule of thumb in the training field); if they're like most people, and only use about 20% of the functionality, they'll forget the remaining 80% of the material within a week, then forget half of the remainder within another week. From that point onwards, they'll be using the index heavily, since there won't be time to re-read the whole manual to discover what they've missed.

Ask your manager to try this test: Select any user manual on his bookshelf that he read more than a couple weeks ago. Flip randomly to any part of the manual, look for a procedure with extensive cross-references, and ask him how to perform the procedure on that page. Unless he's got an eidetic memory, he'll get the point. You could also collect a dozen or so manuals from around the office and ask him to find a single one that doesn't use cross-references or redundant information. That also makes the point.

<<I'm taking the position that anywhere in the book, they need to know something about what got them there, either in description or through sufficient cross-referencing (which he also dislikes).>>

You're right; he's wrong. It's really that simple. But if he's the "my way" type mentioned above, you won't be able to win this particular pissing match, and you'll need to see if he can live with some kind of compromise.

--Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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RE: How do you read a User Manual: From: John Posada

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