The subject came up again last night. Owen bought a receiver (not new) and supposedly in good functioning condition. He couldn’t get it to do anything but sit there and click. He downloaded the “manual” or what claimed to be the manual. He still could not figure out how to make the receiver tell the speakers to make noise. He couldn’t find the information and there was no index.
“Yes,” I said. “It’s because people like me are obsolete. No one writes manuals. They are either generated automatically via software, usually from developer’s notes, or when the item comes from Japan, written by the manager’s 13-year old niece and her English-Japanese dictionary.”
A few months ago, a friend complained that the company who made his expensive new camera should fire their tech writer. Because the manual was useless. Mind you it had a lot of pages, but none explained what the functions were supposed to do, or what turning them on would accomplish. If anything. I often think a lot options in our cameras are there to keep the development team busy and have no known use — which is why no one tells you what to do with them because they don’t know what to do with those settings either.
The real problem is they got rid of technical writers long ago. We are living with the result. These companies never hired a technical writer or there would be a manual.
It’s our own fault. If we had made a fuss the first time we bought a wildly complicated and expensive item and got no manual, we should have made a fuss. We shouldn’t have to spend thousands of dollars to get a complex device with a generated leaflet or worse, something that looks like a business card or a set of pictures without words. If we had demanded it, we would get documentation. With an index, a table of contents, screenshots. Information explaining not only where to find a function, but what that function does. Why, for example, you might want to use it.
Years went by during which the work I did consumed most of my life. I got up, got dressed, scraped the ice off the car, went to work. I stopped for coffee along the way. Between having done the same kind of work for a long time and perpetually racing against a deadline, life was busy but I turned out good material.
I also knew, no matter what the advertisement said, no job was permanent. I would work until the book was finished, then I’d have to move on because even the best boss won’t pay you for doing nothing. Well, at least not very often.
The industry in which I worked ultimately decided the work I did was worthless. Who needs a manual to tell explain 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 from space or a battle zone.
I was the one who organized chaotic information and tested it to make sure it did what it was supposed to do. If I had anything to do with it, the software worked as intended. I made sure there was a table of contents, index, chapters, screen-shots, 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? If you can’t fix it by rebooting, you are in trouble.
The help desk people don’t have manuals either. No one wrote one and more to the point, no one takes the time to properly train the tech team. There are a few good ones and it’s a blessing when you actually meet one, but most are helpless.
You need help. They want to help (or supposedly want to help), but no one trained them and they don’t have a manual to which they can refer. Oops.
But — 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 and if he is a very good boss, donuts.
But a writer? They only hired me if they were at the end of a production cycle, realized the contract required they deliver documentation. 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 created software for automated documentation, i.e. 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 think. Or how to organize information so users can find it.
It turns out, we were willing to pay buckets of cash for undocumented products. So I guess they were right. No one cares until they run into a problem — which might be the day they set it up the device or a few weeks or months down the road. Which is when they discover “free tech support” is only “free” for three months. After that, they want money and in some cases, a lot of money.
You used to be able to buy books about cameras and computers on Amazon. They were expensive, but worth the money. I’m not even sure that’s true anymore. My best bet is finding people online who own and use similar products and ask questions.
For all of you who believe that crappy documentation is because tech writers are lazy? We aren’t lazy. What we are is fired.