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.

SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS – Marilyn Armstrong

When Garry came into the bedroom, I was staring at the radio. Garry takes his hearing aids off at night, so we have bedtime conversations at high volume. Shouting, really.

“Why are you staring at the radio?”

“I’m trying to figure out if it’s on. Oh, it just started to make noise. It’s on.”

“But why are you staring at it?”

“I thought if I stared at it for a while, it would start to play. Or not. One way or the other, I would find out what the red light means.”

“What red light, and why are you staring at it? How will staring at it help?”

“That’s how I figure things out. It didn’t come with instructions.”

Pause. “Have you taken any drugs?”

“No. See, there’s the red light. I didn’t if know the red light means the CD player is on or off. I had to wait to see if it started playing. I was pretty sure a blinking red light means pause, but I wasn’t sure what a steady red light means. I waited when there was no light. Nothing happened. So I tried it the other way. Now it’s making noise. Therefore, the red light means it’s on. It’s slow getting started.”

I wasn’t trying to be funny, but Garry started to laugh and couldn’t stop. “That’s the sort of thing I would do,” he said,

“Well, how else would I know what the red light means?”

He laughed some more.

Garry thinks I know a lot of stuff I don’t really know, especially about technical issues. I push buttons. If staring (and waiting) doesn’t fix what’s broken, I push another button. Or push the same button again. Or hold the button for a couple of seconds and see if it does something different.

While I’m waiting, I watch. Intently. Maybe I’ll get a message. Isn’t this how everyone fixes stuff? I used to look things up in the manual, but since no one supplies a manual anymore, it’s more art than science.

My husband finds this hilarious.

I spend a lot of time staring at computers, waiting for something — anything — to happen. Hoping an idea will occur to me or for the system to reboot. To see if a blue screen will recur, or the diagnostic will tell me there’s no problem, even though I’m sure there is.

I am waiting for a message.

I must be doing something right. Beethoven is playing on the CD player/radio. And most of the time, the computers work.

ON BECOMING OBSOLETE

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.

WHEN YOU COULD LOOK IT UP IN A BOOK

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

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 technical writers, there would be a manual. You wouldn’t spend a thousand dollars on a camera and get a three-page leaflet. You’d get a book with an index and a table of contents. Screen shots. Explanations not only of where to find a function, but what the function means, so when you get there, you know what to choose.

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.

Years went by during which the work I did was 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. It was the way it 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 awful.

The help desk people don’t have a book, either.

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 regular people work and 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?

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.

TOO MUCH TECH

I went to the dentist. Discovered I’m not (no longer?) dying of infection (antibiotics), but I need a $1200 crown. If I plan to keep the tooth, that is.

Olympus PEN PL-5

At which point, I noticed how lovely was the late afternoon sun. Trying to forget about dental issues, I grabbed my camera to snap a few pictures.

My camera had lost its date and forgotten how to focus. And was making double and triple exposures. I was sure it was not broken, that I had inadvertently pressed something. Clicked something. Turned a dial and changed a setting. Lacking a viable manual, I’d have to go through every menu, setting by setting, until I figured out what happened.

72-Big-Kindle_08

Every year, cameras have more settings. More menus, bells, and whistles we don’t need and probably don’t understand. Extra techno junk is no problem when everything is working as it should, but if it  goes wrong, I’m lost in technological la-la land.

One accidental pressing of a button, a glancing touch on a dial and your camera is a useless hunk of metal.

Unable to figure out what happened, I reset the camera to its default settings. After which, it was fine. I’ll never know what happened. Just one of those things.

72-Camera-Bags_02_09

Did the memory card go belly up? Was it me? Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve unset, or reset something without knowing what or how. Each time it happens, whether it’s a camera, software (Photoshop is particularly prone to going weird), or the computer itself … it makes me crazy. It requires a lot of deep breathing and mumbling to myself to straighten out the mess.

People say “extra bells and whistles” do no harm. I think they are tiny electronic land mines waiting for the unwary to step on them. Not that anyone listens to me, but I would love it if whoever you are, don’t add things, change things, complicate everything because you can. Not a good enough reason.

Stop fixing what isn’t broken. If you can’t improve it really, whatever “it” is, leave it be. And make dental work affordable.

3 PERFECT SHOTS ON THE PENTAX Q7

Three Perfect Shots

Take a subject you’re familiar with and imagine it as three photos in a sequence. Tackle the subject by describing those three shots.


The pictures are my living room, picture window, and snowy front yard between yesterday evening and this morning, all taken (finally!) on a teeny tiny Pentax Q7.  You cannot give this prompt to a photographer and not expect actual pictures. I don’t know if these qualify as perfect, but they come with an entertaining story of the continuing battle of human against technology. And, of course includes three pictures.

Taken by the light of a 40-watt bulb. Evening at home.
Taken by the light of a 40-watt bulb. Evening at home.

Weeks ago, I got a Pentax Q7, a tiny, light, compact camera which uses interchangeable lenses. Even shoots RAW, like a real camera. I had never used it, though it has been lurking in the office for a while. It was like an itch I could not scratch.

I got the Q7 on the advice of someone who has one and loves it. He got his in Hong Kong, but he was sure there’d be great deals on it soon. There were. I got it as a kit with 2 lenses for less than a point and shoot.

Spring hasn't come yet, but we live in hope.
Spring hasn’t come yet, but we live in hope.

It looks like a “real camera” that got put through a wash-dry cycle, and shrank to less than half its size. It’s tiny. Its lenses are weightless, but fast at f2.8.

So why had I never used it? It wasn’t for lack of trying. It was set to some weird color setting. Red. Hideous. I couldn’t figure out how to unset it. The manual, like most manuals for Japanese cameras, had lots of pages, but no useful information. How can they publish so many pages without saying anything? I could not find so much as a reference to “Bold Unicolor.”

I tried resetting the camera to its defaults. I went through every menu, every setting. I tried the White Balance dial and went deep into every possible variation on the many menus. Nope. It remained “Bold Unicolor.” I discovered I could pick a different unicolor. Yellow, blue, green, magenta. I could not turn it off.

We've got a bright blue sky and sunshine ... but it's cold out there!
We’ve got a bright blue sky and sunshine … but it’s cold out there!

I was positive the camera wasn’t broken. Also sure the Q7 is shortly going to be discontinued in favor of a newer model and may become abruptly hard to get — which would also explain its low price. Regardless, I was sure there was a dial, button, or obscure menu setting that would fix the problem. All I had to do was keep looking.

Finally, having reached the end of my patience, I turned it around and stared at it from the front. I talked to it and I think I wasn’t very polite.

I generally look at cameras from the back. When I initially get them, I check to see where memory chips and batteries go, where a USB cable attaches. I attach a strap, which I could do in my sleep. Unless I’m changing the lens, I don’t look at the front of the camera much. All the stuff I need is out back.

I sat there and looked. Realized I couldn’t see it very well, so I took off my glasses, turned up the light and squinted. Eureka! Tucked in next to the lens, near the bottom of the body, I spied a tiny dial with minuscule — unreadable — text. I could see there were settings on it (which I have not yet deciphered). One is a plain dot without text. I turned the dial to the dot and I finally had normal color.

I had been brooding over this for weeks. Longer, actually while watching my warranty run out. It haunted my dreams. Last night and this morning, I (finally) took a few pictures on this tiny camera. If you are over forty, bring a magnifying glass. And about that manual …