It’s an odd feeling to be declared obsolete. I had been getting increasingly less relevant for a while, but after the dot coms went down, the high-tech world turned on its ear. Venture capital disappeared and so did the start-ups that had been my bread and butter.

computer gargoyle

Tech writers were replaced by automated systems that generate “documentation” from embedded engineering notes. For years, no one cared if the material these systems generated was useful or readable. As long as “something” was included with the product, it was “good enough.”

Intelligent, human-based technical support had already been exported. Now, the same thinking was applied to documentation.

Need help? Call tech support on the other side of the world. Let your customers wait on hold, get disconnected. Finally, let them talk to someone who knows nothing and will provide incorrect information. Never provide a call back number, so if the solution doesn’t work — and mostly, it won’t — make them go through the whole thing again. What could go wrong with this? Who needs a manual?

i_467_old-computer-advertisement-006A lot has gone wrong with this approach. Almost everything. Belatedly, a wide range of companies discovered that having horrible customer service and no documentation was actually affecting business.

Industry-wide rethinking came too late for my career, but it’s nice to see respect for customers coming back into style. Better late than never. It turns out that customers who buy expensive gear do want documentation and expect good service, too. Shocking. Who’d have guessed?

The whole “call tech support” got old quickly.

I never intended to be a technical writer. I was going to be a “real” writer. You know. An author. Novels. Literature.

I eventually wrote a lot of books, all of them explaining how to do something obscurely technical and computer-related. For a gal who barely scraped through basic algebra and never took a physics or chemistry course, I picked up a lot along the way.

I rode the high-tech wave until that fateful day when I was informed “no one reads manuals.”

alienware side view computer

The world keeps turning. I’m seeing “help wanted” ads for tech writers again. It was a long drought.  At last, written (not generated) documentation is making a comeback. I’ve lived long enough to see the full cycle, to watch an industry — and my profession — come 360 degrees back to where it all began.

Categories: Books, Computers, Technology, Writing

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37 replies

  1. Those Canon fans get their manual online – no book with their cameras. So you have to download nearly 300 or so pages. So someone is writing manuals. They aren’t just printing them. That put me off that brand for a start.
    What I found amusing while living in Austria was the literal translations of manuals. Some strange English grammar. At least it cheered me up, even if the manuals didn’t help me.


    • That’s the thing. They aren’t written. They are generated. By software. It’s a lot of information, but the information consists essentially of raw data. No context, no explanation. A lot of pages does not mean a lot of information. This is my world.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the computers that come with only an on-line manual. If you can’t figure out how to hook the darn thing up so that you can get on-line, what good are they?


  3. We just read a manual and it was hysterical, it looked like English, but it wasn’t. None of it made sense, it was a translation of a manual into English by a computer. Those language programs are a total mess. They translate word for word and most of it doesn’t make any sense. It was very comical. The pictures however were in a universal language and we could figure it out.


    • That may be an improvement over they way used to do it– Favorite niece in 7th grade using Japanese to English dictionary. They know exactly enough English to make it not only incomprehensible, but hilarious.


  4. You mean people don’t want to read instructions that are nothing but poorly drawn pictograms, with 15,000 parts labeled with every letter of the alphabet, and that may have an occasional how-to sentence that was badly translated to English from some third world language? I remember the manuals written for the old Nintendo games I played back in the day were comical if not very informative due to the poorly translated instructions in “Engrish.”


    • I once bought a game (Mah Jong — do NOT laugh, we used to play Mah Jong … I like the clicking of the tiles) from an upscale department store in New York, Lord & Taylor. The game came with instructions that, when read out loud, reduced professional radio announcers to helpless tears. Starting with the engraved “LOAD & TAYLOR” on the leather box, to the extraordinary prose in which one was invited to have a “light-hearted, cheering game of Mahh Jongg …” it was among the funniest things I ever read. Somewhat less funny are the instructions for my various cameras which don’t bother to tell you how to get to the menu you need to change a particular setting … or what those cryptic functions “Ac/rd2” actually mean. You can change it. From its default to some other setting. Now, if ONLY I knew what it would do if I tried changing it …


      • My camera has masses of info about it, neatly documented; it also has what is laughingly called a joystick which is the hub of the damn camera. Hit that button at the wrong moment and you are doomed.
        it has four directions, and each direction takes you someplace mysyterious. within each of those mysterious portals are sub-portals, and off shoots on each of those. Why this sucker doesnt weight two hundred pounds is beyond me, but the booklet explains all of these functions nicely, clean and direct, in four languages. . what it does NOT do is tell you how to get back to where you started. Its like the tourguide from hell, leaving you stranded in Carlsbad Caverns at dusk, “oh, sorry, supper time, I must go…” and he leaves, taking the map and the flashlight.


        • I think all modern cameras other than point and shoot are the same. I have menus and submenus and submenus to the submenus. More than half the choices on most of the menus are a total mystery to me. I’m afraid to change anything because I have NO idea what will happen. I wasn’t kidding when I said you see these selection like NDR/CD?Y/N +- and no explanation of what in the world they are talking about. The so called manual, which is nothing more than generated gobbledygook from the software will say something like “You can change the NDR/CD setting by choosing Y or N, or use the +/- selector.” But it won’t tell you what that setting controls.

          They keep adding more and more of these mystery settings without any information about what they are.

          I know shutter speed, ISO, f-stops. Filters. Focus. Depth of field. The rest of it? They have put so many bells and whistles … Does anyone actually use them? Or know their purpose? Can anyone even FIND them?

          Liked by 1 person

          • i can find them, I just dont know what to do with them (or how to make them go away), since it appears the manual writers know this stuff so well they assume we wouldnt buy such a complex piece of machinery unless WE already knew most of this stuff and the manual is more of a refresher course. Sure it is.
            Sort of like being handed a “refresher course” in Calculus and Trig and you cant even comprehend algebra…

            How complex technology has gotten: I was watching an ad for a new VW (maybe) online, and it showed an all electronic vehicle (experimental model) that required no key start, you just push a button here and a button there and off you go…and I suddenly realized that I may not be buying a new car( if I ever do), again, because I wont be able to drive it. Technology is swooshing along without us, and it’s not pleasant.

            And here’s the other kicker. These manuals are not written for us. They’re written for people who have never handled an old style camera, never loaded film in, never dealt with f stops and filters…if forces us to either do the math in our heads or forget everything we ever learned about our old 35mm cameras…


            • I doubt the manual writers are people. I think it is generated “data” — without a human being checking to see if anyone can use the stuff. Information is NOT communication. That’s the difference between a manual written by someone like me, and the crap they pass off as manuals these days.


  5. If i buy a new tech gadget then I have to know where to start, so I read the manual, although for me this is usually a new iron, camera or household thing. Mr. Swiss seems to have an intuition and does it all without reading the manual for the first five minutes until he realises that he probably forgot to do something. In my third year in Switzerland I changed jobs and was working for the Robert Bosch corporation where they manufactured electric drills and hand tools. It was a smaller subsidiary where the factory assembled the finished products including the manual (and also where I met Mr. Swiss, but there I did not need a manual, I just used my natural charm). I didn’t write the manual, that had already been written, but being responsible for the complete english text in the company amongst other things, I had to set up the english for the manual. It was interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My husband reads manuals, which is (one of the reasons) why he is the ‘go to’ guy whenever anyone else has a problem. He missed ‘real’ documentation, but went on reading what was provided. One of the signs that he’s really good at what he does is he could figure stuff out given the pathetic materials provided…


    • I can decipher some of the stuff they send with equipment … but with cameras, there really needs to be some kind of explanation of the menu structure so you know where to look to find a particular function. Fortunately, there’s the Internet and forums and YouTube. I maintain that it really IS the responsibility of the manufacturer to provide adequate documentation, but I fought that battle for a lot of years. I lost. Time for other people to take up arms 🙂


  7. I think part of the problem, too, is that computer technology changes so rapidly that the manual that came with your new program last year is now outdated because of changes to the program itself, this year. Even the box program you bought a year ago is often updated online, and sometimes it adds or removes bits when you upgrade to a newer computer. My old beloved PhotoDraw from 2000 still works with Win7, but Win 7 “no longer supports certain features”– not suprisingly, the ones I used the most. It has rearranged several more into a more workable format. Any manual i may have had back then is basically useless.
    (yeah yeah, I know, “Photo Draw, snicker snicker”)


  8. I wonder where they got the idea that nobody read manuals. I like a hard copy and I never start using a new gadget without reading the manual first even if I only skim. The trouble is that some of them are very badly written. As for automated customer service ugh!


  9. It’s kind of amazing to see the wheel turn back to where it began from. Kudos to life and change. everything goes in circle.


  10. When I have a problem or want to learn something new – take Photoshop as an example – I want something in writing that can sit on the desk beside my computer and guide me through what I want to do. I don’t want to be constantly switching back and forward between my screen and an on-line article. And I don’t want to be spending my money on paper and printer ink to print out some badly written cross-referenced solution. Bring back the tech writers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Adobe used to provide real documentation, but now, nothing. There are “aftermarket” materials you can buy on Amazon and elsewhere, but otherwise, you are on your own. They have the same attitude as the old AT&T. “We’re Adobe. We don’t have to provide documentation.”


    • I tend to be a bit woolly pated when it comes to “read, click, minimize, open this read that, go to X, maximize”…and by the end of all that clicking and reading I have either forgotten where I was when I started, or have wandered to another program that suddenly caught my attention –I belong to the ‘oh look at that pretty butterfly…” school of computer users–or i have hit close when I should have hit maximize and we then start over.
      For the most part, if a program isnt basically intuitive to start with theres a good chance it never will be a friend of mine, What I like a manual for, in most cases, is to figure out how “this’ relates to ‘that’ and oh dear, where’s the undo button for what I just did and shouldnt have


      • Most applications are reasonably intuitive, but not everything is a computer program. There are applications like Photoshop which are not only NOT intuitive, but are totally anti intuitive and have a steep learning curve. No one knows everything in Photoshop, not even its designers.

        And then, there are actually things, like cameras. Recording devices. Kitchen appliances. Some of which require setting up, others requiring assembly. Have you ever tried to assemble a bicycle without instructions? Intuitive? NOT!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Sometimes there are things, like appliances, that need no explaining and those informative booklets are actually ‘Saving our Butt Books” in case of owner stupidity. My new hairdryer warns me that children should be told about the dangers of electrocution. Oh GOOD…

          My microwave has a nice little booklet explaining how to install my MW oven, how to plug it into the wall, how to turn it on (“Press Start”) and some nifty little recipes for things I will NEVER make, as well as hazards, shock warnings, and “do not drop”.

          I have a new washer (low water type) that requires at least one solid read of the instruction manual every month, and the vacuum cleaner has a twenty page manual that travels WITH the vacuum.

          You can also go online to get the instructions for how to install your new printer and troubleshoot it, in printable format…er…


          • I love online manuals for computers that you can’t connect because you don’t have the manual.

            My iPad came with NO INSTRUCTIONS AT ALL. It was a real pain in the butt to set up. At least a leaflet “getting started” guide would have been a nice touch. Geez. Would it really kill anyone to include a manual?

            Liked by 1 person

  11. Well I sure do.., read the manual that is. Modern manufacturers, in an effort to save money, no longer print manuals, or include them with the gear, but rather, direct you to their web site where you may download one. This is a so, so answer but has some advantages in that you can store these documents on your computer to better keep up with them. But I’m old fashioned and like to have a hard copy as well.

    Now here’s where things can get.., well.. tricky. Being in pro audio I often buy gear made in other countries.., especially the UK. Britain’s biggest “manual sin”, is often not accounting for the difference in their standard size paper and ours. I can’t tell you the number of times printing from a UK document just doesn’t work, and much of the info gets cut off.., and I’ve tried all kinds of tricks to get satisfactory print outs. Sometime it works, and sometimes not.., especially when they lock the format. I have tried copying the text, loading it into a word processor saving and printing it out that way. But if you’re working with a 50 page, or more, manual it can be a pain and often the graphics get sacrificed.

    We need you Marilyn…


    • Yes, it is the different in size between 8.5 X 11, American “legal size”, and European B4. It’s stupid because it’s not that big a deal to make it automatically resize to whatever paper your printer uses. But a lot of non-American tech writers have no clue what paper sizes are elsewhere. They are barely aware of the sizes in their own country. I am SO glad I don’t have to fight this battle anymore. I spent years lobbying for documentation that actually could be easily used by the people who need it. I lost that battle. Many times. Now, I just go online and look for help. Usually someone has put together some kind of stuff that’s much better than the manufacturer provided. And aren’t we all grateful!! The “Idiot” books are the best, especially for cameras. Unfortunately, they don’t have them for the latest stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

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