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.

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. Pretty much everything, really. Belatedly, a wide range of companies seem to have discovered that having horrible customer service and no documentation is affecting business! Imagine that. Industry-wide rethinking came too late for my career, but it’s nice to see respect for customers seeping back into service. Better late than never. It turns out that customers who buy expensive gear do want documentation. The more expensive the equipment, the better service they apparently expect. Who’d have guessed? I’m sure industry execs were shocked to discover people want manuals. Good ones. Written in a language they understand.

The whole “call tech support” thing got old really fast.

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.”

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.

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

35 thoughts on “ON BECOMING OBSOLETE”

  1. My tech manuals seem to be online which I find OK as I can read how it works before I decide to buy it. Many years ago, about 50, I had my first job in Switerland for a Swiss company that manufactured drills etc. and I would translate the German instructions into English.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Manuals are coming back. For a long time, they were “generated,” rather than written and mostly, they made no sense. It’s still only 50-50, but I have seen signs that writers are working again. It’s a good sign after a lot of years where there was NO work.

      When I was in Israel, we depended on translators a lot. I wrote in English, but often the book needed translation into German or Russian or Japanese. German was a common second language after English.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. That’s because most of it is “generated,” not written. It is accumulated from developer’s notes left in the software. Most developers can’t write a normal English sentence, much less instruction on how to use the software. So even IF it tells you where to find something, it doesn’t tell you what that this actually does. I have a ton of settings on my cameras — I have NO idea what they are supposed to do. The are something like “AG/P?” and I’m supposed to pick one of the letters in the group — without knowing what the AG/ is supposed to do. They could remove 75% of the stuff in my camera — it would make NO difference to me since I don’t know what it’s supposed to do anyhow. And I am very far from alone!

          Liked by 2 people

                1. There’s no small ring with a + in the middle and different things on the circle? Pictures? I’ve never seen a digital camera without it. It’s standard pretty much. It’s how you navigate the software in the camera. That circle ring should be on the right side of the side of the camera where the viewing screen is. Lower right quadrant.

                  Liked by 1 person

                    1. enough with work, BTW I found out how to turn off the flash on my camera. It isn’t on the regular menu but on a side menu.


                    2. As long as you found it! There is probably some kind of manual online. Type in the name of your camera (and its model number — should be printed ON the camera, somewhere) hit return and with a little luck, the manual will show up. I don’t bother to print them. I download it so I can read it, but they use too much ink and paper otherwise.

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. Many of the tech gadgets I’ve purchased lately come from manufacturers in Japan, China, Or South Korea. What little documentation comes with these products is the native language translated into English. And the translations are frequently so poor that they don’t make any sense. But the translations can be really funny.


  3. I had that Mac! My first one. And, luckily, a good friend whose husband was the Mac advisor for the school district. I made good use of him, even though I was no longer working as a teacher.


    1. I had it too … and the next one after that. Actually, I had about 7 Macs over the years until finally, they exhausted me with Macs that could never be updated or repaired. The last time they did it to me, they had SWORN that THIS model would be updateable and a month later, they put out a new one and mine — still unpaid — was junk.

      That was it for me and Mac. I know other people who had the same experience and they won’t buy a Mac either, You get screwed often enough, eventually, you get the hint. But at that time, in those early days?

      The Mac was THE machine.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a(nother) tech writer and editor (made redundant by machine-generated garbage), I agree. If people could read them, understand them, find them easy to navigate (and associated training manuals) there would be little need for ‘tech support’ that was nothing more than a list of q&a bs.
    I’ve read and edited engineers (software up to bridges and beyond into space vehicles) and I’m here to tell the world – they speak their own language and no one else understands it! There needs to be the person who can read and understand what they do, and translate it into something the rest of the world can follow.
    Simple! But I roll the eyes, because big business decided it was ‘cost effective’ to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Who’s paying the price now? Who’s giving up on some tech because it’s too hard to …


    1. YES YES YES YES. A smart writer can figure out what to write, but a brilliant engineer is the least likely person to say anything understandable by anyone except another someone like him. That’s why the currently available manuals are meaningless. They are generated material, no context, no background. Technobabble.

      Nice to meet another one of me. Didn’t you love it when they told you “no one ever reads manuals”? Made you feel so … appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I also got the other side. People who said ‘You know what – I understood that, and followed the instructions, and didn’t have to get the help team involved.’
        And in the training manuals (after the actual training), I got feedback, because people could use them to ‘re-understand’ the stuff they were doing (and sometimes, why they did it). Sometimes, it makes it worthwhile. But I never had a boss (well, one) say thank you, or well done, or …
        One or two engineers, who may have even learned from it, but … Such is life.


        1. Engineers loved the books. They also read them like books. My problem was getting the engineers to give me some time so I could understand what I needed to write — and to whom. Of course by definition, we WERE the beta backup squad. I used to discover problems no one imagined possible because I didn’t think like a developer. I really liked my work. My husband did the glamorous stuff, but I did interesting stuff.

          My favorite gig was helping NASA engineers write the proposal on how to create devices to grab satellites. Of course, their recommendations were not heeded because their concept was too expensive. They did it the cheap way and it didn’t work.

          In the end, the astronauts just grabbed the satellites by hand — which turned out to be a very reasonable alternative. Working with NASA was totally cool, I learned all sorts of stuff I thought was science fiction, but turned out to be science.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I was the sw engineer everyone got to do the documentation, just because I did it without a fight, and then (why?) I volunteered to help others, and then (why?) volunteered to write the training manuals that went with the sw. it was good practice in on sense – dedication to writing every day, this many hours, with this much output – it just took years to unlearn the ‘tech-speak’ – strange, isn’t it?


            1. It took me years to add adjectives to my sentences, but overall, tech writing also vastly improved my writing. I can pretty much write anything about anything, if I have any kind of information. Unfortunately, this doesn’t extend to fiction writing. I can write ABOUT anything — but I can’t make things up. Just as well I didn’t decide to become a great author. Don’t think it would have gone well.

              Liked by 1 person

            2. On the last job I had, before retiring, I was responsible for taring student assistants to use a piece of software with a legendary 6-month learning curve. If we allowed that to happen our slew of assistants would be useless. A semester didn’t last that long. I had to, what amounted to, re-write the manual, and cut it down to two weeks. Well I didn’t so much as re-write it as become the personal tutor for each student employed by us. As-you-go tutoring had its advantages as we could actually get some work done while learning. Anyway, when I finished scribbling in the Manual, simplifying procedures, nobody could read what was originally there without great difficulty.

              Liked by 1 person

      2. “When all else fails, read the Manual”.., it’s an engineering rule. We ignore most modern manuals because they are not written by people who use the stuff they make. I have a theory that they are really only speculating that the stuff will work, and are as surprised as we are when, or if, it does?


        1. It isn’t written by anybody. It’s a generated collection of engineers notes from inside the software. Nobody wrote it. It’s GENERATED DATA. Not only did the writer not use the equipment, the writer didn’t exist.


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