THE MANUAL YOU DON’T HAVE – Marilyn Armstrong

Last night, someone I know and who should know better, complained that Olympus, from whom he bought his camera, should fire the tech writer. Because there was no manual.

There was a booklet that listed the options but didn’t explain what they were or what to do with them. Well, duh.

I wrote this. Then I rewrote it to make it better.

I felt obliged to point out the reason there is no manual is they never hired a tech writer in the first place. If they had a living, breathing technical writer, there would be a manual.

You wouldn’t spend a couple of thousand dollars on a camera and get a generated leaflet. You’d get a real book with an index and a table of contents. Screenshots. Explanations not only of where to find a function but what the function does. So when you get there, you know what option to select and what it will do to your photographs.

Once upon a time, that was my world. I thought it was important, at least to the people who bought products about which I wrote.

The mysteries of the menus in my camera are hilarious. It might as well be written in Urdu.

Years went by during which the work I did was most of my life. I got up, got dressed, scraped the ice off the car, went to work (stopping for coffee along the way) and went through my day. Between having done the same kind of work for a long time and perpetually racing against a deadline, life was busy.

I knew, no matter what the ad said when I took a job, my work wasn’t permanent. I would work until the book was finished, then I’d move on. That was the way it really was.

The industry in which I worked ultimately decided the work I did was no longer necessary. Who needs a manual to tell them how to use equipment that costs a gazillion dollars and controls the operation of a steel mill? Or a missile tracking system? Or a satellite grabber for use out in space? They can always call the help desk — especially in space where you can easily find a signal for your phone.

I was the one who organized the chaotic information into a book with a table of contents, index, chapters, and diagrams so you would not always have to call someone. Considering the state of tech support these days, you can see where this failure to supply reasonable documentation has landed us. That’s why the phones are always busy and why the quality of support is so bad. How often do you find that you know more than the “help tech” individual knows? Basically, if you can’t fix it by rebooting, uh oh.

The help desk people don’t have the manual, either. And they badly need one.

Regardless, I was obsolete.

You need developers and a boss because someone has to say why you are all gathered here this morning. Also, the boss makes sure there’s coffee.

But a writer? They only hired me when they were at the end of a production cycle, realized the contract required they deliver documentation with the product. Sometimes, I got as little as three weeks to learn a product and produce a book that looked professional. At that point, no one cared what was in the book or whether the information would be of any use to anyone. It just had to be big, thick, nicely designed, and weigh enough to use as a doorstop.

My days were numbered. Eventually, I was gone.

To substitute for professional writers, they produce “automatic documentation.” Which is raw data generated by a program using “comments” left by developers, many of whom speak English as a second or third language and in any case, do not understand how non-engineers work or the kind of information they need to navigate a complex product.

It turns out, people were still willing to spend oodles of money for an undocumented product. So I guess they were right. No one cares until they get an expensive product that includes nothing. The good news? You can find entire books — the kind I used to write — on Amazon. Buy them and find out how the product works. It’s just like the books people like me wrote. Cool, huh? Except they don’t come with the product. You have to buy one and they are not always available.

My best bet is finding people online who own and use similar products and pick their brains.

For all of you who believe that crappy documentation is because tech writers are lazy? No, we aren’t lazy.

What we are is fired.

21 thoughts on “THE MANUAL YOU DON’T HAVE – Marilyn Armstrong

  1. Oh dear how I can relate to that. Part of my job was writing instruction manuals for software and of course people would ring for help rather than read the manuals.
    I find it intriguing that I now turn to YouTube for instruction that is usually delivered by a man sitting on what appears to be his living room couch.

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    • There are two kinds of users: (1) those who will NEVER ever look at the manual and (2) those who read the manual and then reread it. The latter folks are usually professionals who use the equipment or software for work — and often are themselves engineers or developers or mathematicians. The former group don’t read (anything) and it wouldn’t matter what you gave them. They would always call because they don’t know how to use documentation or even look stuff up on Google, even when it’s well-written. Minimally, there should BE a manual for the service techs who sometimes appear to know less than their callers know, which is pretty pathetic.

      I call because if I can’t find an answer online and no one I know has an answer, that’s the only option left. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve been sold the wrong part or given bad directions that make the problem worse.

      I just think that any product you buy should have a manual that actually says something, that isn’t generated, and explains what the terms mean and what you can do with them AND what effect it will have depending on what you do.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The user manual on my last cellphone consisted of a 7x5cm bit of paper with the warranty info, on both sides in something like a size 3 font. Youtube to the rescue. 🙂

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    • We depend on bloggers, YouTube — and sometimes, if we are lucky, we can buy a book that actually explains the product. The problem is that they are producing stuff so FAST, that no one bothers to write a book because they will replace that computer or phone or camera in a few months, maximum.

      Sometimes they ask for a serial number — and no matter what I do, I can’t read it. If it’s less than 8 points, forget it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. People sometimes think they don’t need a manual, they want to start using their new toy and go for the “Quick Guide” until they find that it doesn’t explain anything.
    I guess this is why the people who produced the “Dummies” books did so well.

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    • Yes. I loved those books. But you needed to have someone who could really explain the product to you to write one. When I worked professionally, I got a “sandbox,” which was the whole product, but mine so I could test functions and blow things up without ruining anyone else’s work.

      Things like Adobe stopped adding manuals — and you really CAN’T use Photoshop without taking a class and buying a book. That’s why, after all these years, I can use maybe 5% of Photoshop.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You have my Sympathies – I really don’t understand this current trend for no instructions for anything… well actually I do as I’ve worked with developers and engineers my whole life, and whilst they’re very clever – they are also idiots. They don’t understand the need to document their own processes let alone the need for anyone to have anything written??? You’re right they don’t understand customers who are non-engineers and support teams are just as bad…

    Arrrgghhh – I must stop myself – I’ve been a Quality Professional for 20 years and my disdain for the rest of my fellow workers is trying to come out… must stop it. 😀

    Don’t even get me started on the need for decent drawings and revision control!!! (and no – just because you can operate CAD, it doesn’t make you a design engineer!)

    Anyway – you Tech writers were alright. I wouldn’t have minded that job – I spend my days writing, business processes, SOPs and Methods of manufacture anyway – oh and dealing with customers who don’t understand how a product works… (I wonder why)

    I need to go and have a lie down now…

    Liked by 1 person

    • And don’t get ME started on how no one does beta (or even alpha) testing anymore. I used to BE the tester — usually the ONLY person in the company who wasn’t an engineer or developer and used the product. I frequently had to ask, “Is this a bug or an upgrade? Because it doesn’t do what you say it does.” I was the “user’s eyes” and I was good at it. I think they got rid of testers before they got rid of writers. By the time they hired me, it was usually a completely untested product ready to go to market. And that’s the way they are STILL doing it. Only without the documentation. That’s how WordPress does it. That’s how Microsoft does it. That how all the new telephones have things like exploding batteries.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Testing what’s that??? The company I used to work for (a large defence electronics firm) had so many quality and test issues they solved the problem by getting rid of the quality dept. In the 5 years I was there no a single project was on time, in budget or actually worked when it went out into the field… and we’re talking £20,000 encryption device here… And none of them had manuals!

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  5. Sometimes consumer tech comes with a one or two page flyer with instructions to go to the product’s website to download a more in-depth manual. Although even those look like they were written by someone who failed an ESL class.

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    • They weren’t written. They are produced by software that gathers up “comments” from engineers and developers — material NOT written for users. It’s there so if the developer moves to another workplace, whoever takes over the software will have a clue what the originator meant by his written code. When copied and pasted into a “manual” — it means nothing to real-life users.

      Now, ironically, a lot of companies are rethinking the “no manual” approach and are looking for writers again. A bit late for me. I’m too old for the commute and there’s NO way I’m driving to Cambridge or Boston daily for ANY reason. I think I’d rather throw myself under a bus. Anyway, my skills are out of date and I have little interest in relearning.

      When I had a space on Linked In, I was still getting offers, but they were ALL in Cambridge (mostly) and a few in Boston. That’s a 70 mile each way driving commute because we don’t have a train from here. Frankly, I’m too old. I was too old 10 years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Unfortunately, while you can get a couple of days at home, most days you need to interface with the developers because they have the information you need. You can’t just accept what they say as true, either. A lot of the time, it’s what the WANT to happen, but it doesn’t actually work. So writing a manual is also the first “non-engineer” look at the system. Most of the time, you need to be there. Sometimes not, but mostly, yes.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. It is indeed a sad commentary on where our society is as a whole. Nothing wrong with manuals that explain in detail how it works. I miss that. The so-called instructions that come with items bought these days, leave much to the observers’ consideration and have little to do with fact. If my son didn’t show me step by step how to use the instant pot, I’d never have tried. One because they scare the crap out of me (my mother instilled a fear of pressure cookers that haunts me to this day) and I can’t see to read the instructions myself. Hopefully, I’ll have a long dignified memory because everything has to be stored there for future use. My own little computer! snicker snicker.

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    • My mother was also afraid of pressure cookers and with good reason. They are fine, but if they aren’t — BOOM. Most products come with NO information. My Mac came with a business card that said “Thank you” without even a “Startup” leaflet. I am always grateful for anything helpful, but for complicated stuff — cameras and computers and other electronic devices — everyone needs a real manual to explain not only what to do, but why you are doing it

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      • I so agree, with what really needs a manual. Ive used the instant pot for (my best endeavour) scalloped potatoes which were heavenly. I’ve cooked 3 roasts and pork tenderloin and they were succulent and had such flavour – I was stunned to be perfectly honest. I tried spaghetti but it tasted like it came from a can. Perhaps it was their recipe. I’d prefer my own which people used to invite themselves over to eat whenever they heard I was making it. lol. I don’t know, was it the free food? haha Actually it is a heavenly recipe. My chili is also sumptuous and I used to make it for the racing team to sell to make money. It was always a crowd pleaser.

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        • Chili was my specialty until one day, I realized I was one pot of chili over the line. Also meat loaf. And pot roast. I did them really well, but after 50+ years of cooking, a trip to a sushi bar would do it for me. But I do have an air fryer, two slow cookers (a big one and a small one), and an amazing rice cooker. And to be fair, if I buy ONE more thing for the kitchen, I will need to move out of the house.

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          • lmao Marilyn. My rice cooker just died. sigh. I can’t eat fish because my daughter is deadly allergic, so I haven’t eaten fish in over 24 years. I miss it but I won’t risk it in case she touches something that although I cleaned might still have a pseck on it somewhere and if I were to kiss her, it would literally be the kiss of death. Anything that makes my life easier and I don’t have to stand to cook is worth it these days, worth it’s weight in gold tbh.

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