Are Manuals Read?

Subject: Are Manuals Read?
From: "Tom Parker [Consultant]" <PARKER_T -at- A1 -dot- WDC -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 17 Mar 1994 22:45:00 GMT

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Date: Thu, 17 Mar 1994 22:21:00 GMT
Subject: Reading Manuals
Content-type: TEXT/PLAIN
Posting-date: Thu, 17 Mar 1994 08:00:00 GMT

Brad Mehlenbacher writes that:
"Manuals have hostile, impatient, frustrated, irritated, critical, angry

I absolutely agree, having frequently been one of those manual readers
myself, and I'm in the Tech Writing field.

Computers have always seemed user hostile in many ways from the old
main-frame days right down to Windows 3.11 which is said to be bug-ridden.

Doug Fettig quotes the NYT as saying that:
"every computer company claims that it is customer focussed, but they are
actually hooked on technology, pursuing the latest widgetry with abandon,
convinced that customers will always follow."

This certainly matches my experience. Part of the problem has to do with
the term "customer" or "user" -- because often the user is a mechanical or
electrical engineer in another company. Engineers in general often regard
documentation as a kind of curse put on them by their tyrannical management
to punish them for forgetting what the budget and schedule was.

Only when you work for an OEM (Orig. Equip. Mfgr) do you write manuals for
"end-users" -- what a term, the poor devil who is going to shell out money
for this stuff. Here the company is pursuing the latest widgetry with abandon,
lashing the staff down the schedule chute because the competition is right on
their heels and the VP may get fired if the Q4 results are too low. So the
manuals are always due yesterday and the people who review them (if any) are
the SME (Subj. Matter Experts) = engineers who object to non-technical plain

Hence the flourishing of the XXX For Dummies series -- not really for dummies,
but, more accurately, for people WHO FEEL LIKE DUMMIES when they struggle on
the keyboard to do something, fail and turn to the manual -- and do not find
what they think is the problem. This happens to all of us, I think.

A simple example right from Microsoft:
Lots of people are buying Word for Windows. I have it. Once in a while I
have to put a fancy equation in a technical document. I remembered faintly
that Winword has a thing called Equation Editor -- very nifty. I try to
find it in the menus. No luck. I open the index in the manual: Equation
Editor? No luck. No entry. There is an entry for "Equation, positioning
see Frame, Positioned Object" -- but I want to CREATE an equation, not
re-locate one. I try the Help Screens -- flipping through all the groovy
Hypertext -- find stuff all about OBJECTS. Finally figure out that I have
to go to the Insert Menu and choose Object -- and sure enough after about
a hour (eternity) of frustration I find the Equation Editor. And even use it.

This is not an isolated example. I hit it all the time when I go beyond the
stuff I use often enough to remember readily. So I become impatient,
irritated, frustrated, critical, -- but PERSISTENT. Most folks who don't get
to work with computers all the time would have given up and done without.
But the irritation, frustration and critical feelings remain and build up.
And I don't think that this is going to go away when Help is all on-line and
all the HELP files built by the hard-working folks on WINHLP-L get finished.

I think manuals are likely to go away and be replaced by on-line HELP files
in hypertext with 256 color graphics (not yet, tomorrow).

Since I am rambling on I will break off here and cover two other topics

The Computer Industry Abandonment (Obscelesence) Theory
What Do Techwriters Do When The Manuals Go Away.

Stay tuned -- or you've been warned and can skip over.

Tom Parker
Senior Tech. Writer
parker_t -at- a1 -dot- wdc -dot- com

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