It’s Not Your Equipment … It’s a Lack of Documentation!

Maybe I should just give up, but I spent my career writing material to help folks use complicated equipment and sometimes very obscure software.

I should probably start by mentioning that I’ve fought this battle for long years … and was utterly defeated. About 7 or 8 years ago, high-tech companies, in a money crunch and driven by that bottom line that seems to be the only thing that matters anymore, began to eliminate technical writers. Entire departments were dismantled and eliminated. Jobs disappeared and what remained paid so badly it was insulting.

A decision had been made at the corporate level: YOU don’t need documentation. No matter how complicated or expensive the equipment or software you purchase may be, don’t need documentation. Companies provide the minimum the law requires or they can get away with. Quality is no object nor usability. Information is limited to basic stuff like how to install a battery and if you are lucky, where the compartment is.

I was a technical writer for about 75% of my career, the rest being divided between journalism, editing, promotions and advertising. But mostly, I wrote documentation and I though my work mattered. Probably naive, but I believe that if I documented a system, it should be well written, clear, organized, and useful., When a user needed to find something, it would be in the book and in the online help. It would be easy to find. I carefully avoided using mysterious search parameters that could be deduced via a psychic link to my brain. If you knew what you wanted, I made it easy for you to find it.

I was proud of my work. I still believe the fundamental goal of documentation is to make complicated things simple. Not necessarily easy because sometimes, the product was not easy to use, but that didn’t mean that it had to be hard to understand. My documentation was good for another reason: I used the product and tested what I wrote to make sure it was true. This testing makes the difference between a pile useless gibberish and a manual.

Thus, when you get something that appears to be documentation, stop and read it. Appearances are deceiving. Most “manuals”  are generated, not written, and never checked for accuracy or usability. Such “manuals” are as likely to increase your confusion as provide illumination.

I bought a PEN EP3 camera from Olympus. Seven months and hundreds of photographs later, it remains one of the mysteries of my world. It takes wonderful pictures, and it has hundreds of functions. I haven’t the slightest idea how to find most functions and have no idea what to do with them if I could find them.

I grew up in a pre-digital world. I know F-stop, depth-of-field, shutter speed, aperture and focus, film speed and composition. I have a good eye. I’m no genius, but my pictures are pretty and I enjoy taking them.

He solves the problem the way most do: Automatic everything, then shoot.

New digital cameras have a vast and overwhelming array of functions, most of which you or I will never use or need. I believe they are there entirely to impress us with the super high tech-ness of the equipment. I doubt that even the designers — especially the designers — expects us to actually use them. Which is good, because I don’t know what they are supposed to do anyhow or why I would need them. Ansel Adams didn’t need them. Neither did Edward Weston. Neither do I. But, the more you pay for a camera, the more of these obscure functions you get and I figure that the least they owe me is an explanation of what these setting do and how to find them.

I’m not sure whether to curse or say thank you. Maybe if Olympus provided a manual that explained these options, I’d be grateful, but that is not happening.

I spent half our shooting time trying to find the menu to change the ISO.

This is true of cameras, but the lack of documentation on your computer is actually worse … much worse because most of us depend on our computers. We need them to work and we need to have some control over the environment in which we work. Configuration of our computers to suit our needs is not a minor detail: it’s the difference between having a tool that does what you need and one which is a burden … an enemy with which you do daily battle.

I spent all last night — until dawn — trying to figure out how to turn off the touchscreen functions of my monitor. Before Mac users jump in and point out that it’s because Windows doesn’t work, that’s irrelevant and untrue. Windows works fine. It’s just that the company doesn’t provide any written documentation. There is embedded information in the operating system, but much of it isn’t logically arranged. It’s rather like looking for your car keys after you’ve dropped them someplace you don’t normally put them. You know they’re in the house, but where? It could be years before you find them..

On a new computer, you typically get an “introductory” video and that’s pretty much it. I watched it. It showed me in exquisite detail how to do what I already knew how to do.

Operating systems are designed to be used the way the system’s developers expect you to use it. If you prefer a different setup, trouble starts. The only way to figure out how to do something differently is to keep querying the system and hope you’ll stumble on the right  key word — the word that will bring up the information you need. What is most frustrating is that you are sure it IS there, but whether or not you will ever find it is a different issue.

If you are sufficiently persistent and a bit lucky, you will eventually find a mystery menu after which you fix your problem in a few seconds.

Last night, I searched, searched again and again. It didn’t call Dell because I knew the support person wouldn’t know the answer either. They pretty much never do.

So I tried one word combination after another, recombining them in the hope that it would lead to a menu buried in the system. There had to be a way to deactivate touch input.

Around 5 in the morning, I found it. It took me less than 30 seconds to eliminate the problem that had been driving me nuts since I got the computer. Now, it’s a monitor. A great, high-definition, 23-inch monitor that’s a joy to work on and makes photo editing a pleasure. No more configuration by crawling insect. I am mistress of my virtual world at last!

A technical writers earns less than an entry-level developer. I understand the guys in India who provide telephone tech support work cheap, but I bet a tech writer would cost less than a network of telephone support no matter how cheaply they work.

Assuming you are under warranty and you can get through the voice mail  maze … and further assuming you get someone who understands the problem and don’t get blown off because software is not part of your warranty (Note: If someone can tell me how, without using software, you can determine if you have a hardware problem, I’d like to hear it) … Round and around you go.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Would it blow the budget to hire a competent technical writer to embed online help that will live on even after the warranty period is over? Wouldn’t it be nice to help users avoid needless aggravation and not wind up with angry, frustrated, exhausted, and homicidal customers whose problems remain unsolved?

Granting that many home users have a limited understanding of how their computers work and for them, it wouldn’t much matter what documentation you supply. Most problems result from insufficient understanding of a product or process. If you are talking about a novice user, perhaps more information wouldn’t help. But …

I’m not inexperienced and I still can’t find essential information I need to configure my monitor. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a menu on the control panel that I could use to configure the monitor’s capabilities, not merely its resolution but any other functions it may have. Functions not available on a particular model could be grayed out. How about that?

There is nothing wrong with my computer that better organized and easier to find information would not solve..

Every issue I’ve had or the last 5 or 6 years was ultimately fixed with a few clicks of the mouse. The problem was never something broken. It was always lack of documentation.

That pisses me off. Because tech writers — even highly experienced ones — work pretty cheap. Users do need documentation, and not just for software and computers. We need documents that let us use our cameras and telephones and DVD players and all those other pricey little devices that we own and often, don’t know how to use. Online FAQs are insufficient.

This is an old battle I’ve already lost. I know it’s hopeless. I find it infuriating that I can barely figure out my telephone without customer support, so rather than spend time on the phone with customer service, I don’t use anything I can’t easily configure.

I had to buy a separate book on how to use Photoshop and another for my first camera. I was able to get some help from a fellow user of my new camera, but that only goes so far. For my PEN P3 camera, there IS no customer support nor any after market book. I depend, as Blanche DuBois said, “… on the kindness of strangers.”.

My camera will remain a mystery until someone writes a “Dummies” book for it. Hopefully I’ll still own the it when the book finally gets published.

It’s not fair. The reason they get away with it is because we let them. Think about it.

So how did I finally figure it out? The “monitor” menu should have been a gateway, but was useless. The only thing you can the “Monitor” menu lets you do is lower your screen’s resolution. That’s useless.

Finally, I typed: Touchscreen.

Up came something that I hadn’t considered. Flicks. Now, for me? That means the movies. Having never used it, I had no idea it had anything to do with the monitor or its touchscreen technology. Once I got to “Flicks,”, I started opening menus and voilà, there were two check boxes allowing me to toggle an option:

  • Enable finger as pointing device.
  • Do not allow finger as pointing device.

I un-checked the first one by checking the second. I clicked “Apply.” As the sun rose in the east, my problem was solved and I went to bed, to sleep, perchance to dream  … of murder, destruction and vengeance.

Categories: Cameras, Computers, Photography, Software, Technology, Writing

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

9 replies

  1. …And you’d think that with over 35+ years as an engineer, I’d have no trouble using any of this stuff…., WRONG! each new piece of software is a scary new adventure. Yes, there is an alarming lack of good documentation accompanying many of the products you buy today. Then there is the tendency to make these manuals available only online…, that is assuming that you have access to the internet, much less a computer.

    I’m still trying to convince a woman friend of mine to get a computer.., even offered to give her an old laptop I’m not using. All she’d have to do is order the service from the phone company. But she resists. It came to a head when she needed to find something you’d normally go to a phonebook for, only to find she didn’t have a current book…, and the printing was too small to read — I seldom use a phonebook directory anymore. How about trying to find a public telephone these days…, never mind finding one.., find one that works. Oh, did I mention she has a problem with cell phones as well.


    • ARE there working public telephones anymore? I would need a magnifying glass to read a telephone book. I can’t read the service tag on my computer: the text must be 6 points or less. So … no one over 40 uses computers? Many changes in both software and equipment are designed to get you to repurchase something you already own. The confusion is a freebie.

      I hate my new phone. It works fine. I just hate it. I don’t want apps. I want to communicate. Having spent most of my career on the development end of high tech, it isn’t difficult to design user interfaces that are intuitive and work the way you expect . It’s that the company won’t devote the time and effort to do the job properly. They don’t bother because we buy the stuff anyway. We get stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.


  2. Reblogged this on Serendipity and commented:

    Did some significant rewriting and editing, better now. More focused.


  3. I’ve been a photographer for 42 years. I’ve been an electronics technician for 42 years. I’ve been a computer geek since they invented them in 1978. I bought the original IBM PC, no hard drive, 256K of RAM memory, $4800.

    I just bought a new Nikon D800 wonder camera. Why was it so difficult to find out why the self cleaning sensor wouldn’t work? I live with Google search for all issues yet it took me more than half and hour to find the answer, put in a fresh battery. 😦 The menu selections controlling the cleaning functions and mirror lock-up require a lot of juice. If the battery isn’t fresh these items are grayed out & therefore not available until you charge your battery. That fact is not in the owner’s manual.

    It takes me over half an hour to program the basic function of the new cameras. There are literally hundreds of choices that affect other choices. A modern DSLR is complex. Once programmed I take the time to write down my choices if all works the way I intended it to work. Sure enough, there will come a time where you’ll need it.

    Hang in there and stay close to knowledgable friends. They’re your best source of technical help. You will persevere. 🙂


    • Yes, and I thank God for other users who’ve already figured it out. My point is that we should not HAVE to figure it out by going on line, calling friends, joining user groups, etc. I WANT A MANUAL. For what I paid for the camera, they can afford to hire a writer! Hell, hire ME. I work cheap. Actually, in recent years I’ve bought three expensive cameras: A Canon T3 which my granddaughter uses. The Olympus PEN PL1 and my new Olympus PEN P3. None of them came with a manual that actually had useful information. Oh, they were thick enough, but the information was gibberish. It had no context. It left out critical steps so that what information there is makes no sense. Nothing is explained. They tell you how to set “DCQ/R” by pressing the up or down arrows. That’s nice. What the hell is DCQ/R? or whatever?

      So, like most people, I ignore those extra functions and adjust the things I understand … assuming I can find the menu. They OWE me a manual.


      • As an audio engineer from back in the iron age, by whichI mean iron oxide on a mylar backing and steel (iron) blades used to cut and edit recordings, I have been forced to enter the digital age. One of my biggest complaint has been the instruction manuals that come with the recording/editing software. These instructions, obviously haven’t been written audio people but by computer geeks. My biggest complaint is the order in which most of these manuals begin…, which never seems to be at the beginning. They all want to start somewhere in the middle assuming that you have audio loaded into the particular software, and then it is hell bent on showing you how to manipulate it. WHOA! buddy…, how did we get the audio into the computer and your software to begin with..???

        I teach students how to edit and produce programs with these various versions of audio software and find myself laboring over it for weeks until I understand…,no stumble upon, how to use it. Then I sit down and re-write a simplified set of instructions to get anyone going in a couple of days, or hours depending on time and aptitude. Where were you when I needed you Marilyn??
        I absolutely hate where the audio industry has gone, and it’s lack of real standards. you’d think that one piece of audio software is like another…, but no each designer does it differently with a whole new set of labels, terms and manipulations to get the same results. We used to be able to take a tape recorded in one studio, on one machine, and go to another studio and play it on a different machine.., that’s called standards and that was the “professional” in pro audio. Professional, meaning, not just that you got paid to do what you did but, that you upheld a certain standard of quality and pride in your work. This lack of professionalism shows up in many fields.., and especially in the computer related area where you basically buy broken software to be repaired over time, or replaced by more broken software that you often have to pay for. I could go on but I think we all know what I mean.


        • When I was “released” from my last job, I was replaced by the boss’s son who’d never written anything in his life.

          Companies don’t hire professional technical writers anymore. We’re dinosaurs. We insist on “accuracy” and “readability.” Some of us insist on actually testing the product! What gall!

          These days, the writer — if it’s a human being and not computer-generated — is an engineer who can’t write, an intern or a secretary working from an engineer’s notes. No context, no testing. Worst of all, no clue about what YOU — the user — needs to know. A good manual doesn’t start with understanding the equipment or technology: it starts by understanding who is going to use it and how. A good tech writer can write about anything … knowing who you are “talking” to is the difference between a manual and an information dump.

          One of the cardinal rules of technical writing was (but obviously no longer is) that you must include everything. Never assume the reader knows how to do “it” whatever “it” is. If your reader does know some of it, he/she can skip what they don’t need, but make sure it’s there if they need it. That was etched in stone. If you hire people who don’t know how to put a book together, you get what you pay for.

          About 10 years ago, I worked for a company where I asked for some time with the engineers to get a better understanding of the product, I was told that their time was too valuable to waste on me, and it didn’t matter because NO ONE WAS GOING TO READ IT ANYWAY. All it had to do was look good and be big and heavy enough to impress potential buyers. That was when I knew that my days were numbered. It was all down hill after that.

          Most of the problems we have with our computers, software, cameras, recording equipment, telephones, you name it is because we don’t know how to use it. We can buy it, but we aren’t allowed to know how to use it properly. I hate it. I feel like Garry being forced to watch Fox News. But that’s the way it is and I don’t see it changing. I taught technical writing. What a waste. Last week I bought a stupid vacuum cleaner that needed to be assembled; there were NO instructions. None. It should have taken 5 minutes, but took an hour because I had to guess which piece went where.


      • I had to chuckle at your response because when I got my new D800, the state of the aart DSLR, it wouldn’t format the memory cards. I took it to the shop where I bought it & the manager couldn’t get it to format a card. The answer? Nikon moved the “OK” button on the new D800, required to format cards. It was so stupidly easy yet the manual didn’t mention the change since I bought the D7000, the latest camera released by Nikon. 🙂


        • I still can’t consistently find about 50% of all the function on my Olympus PEN E-P3, which is currently their flagship product. Drives me nuts. I have to ask at the forum and hope someone can tell me how to navigate the menu system.


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