Friday, April 17, 2015

No quirks in owners manuals


My first car was a VW Squareback, with a very Zen stick shift. The shifter knob outlined four forward gears and reverse. The owners manual included a similar illustration, with additional tips that never mirrored reality.

There was no telling where second or third gear would be found on any given shift. The only way to drive this car was to get a feel for the general vicinity of each gear and then be playful.

My smartphone has similar quirks not found in the manual. It would have been helpful to read something like: “Place the phone down gently, or it will spontaneously reboot. If this is a problem, jam a piece of cardboard next to the battery to ensure a secure fit.” The troubleshooting section could be one sentence: “When something stops working, turn the phone off and on again.”

When my vacuum cleaner started to misbehave, I searched the online manual for instructions. I found the illustration for disassembling the lower plate to get to the beater brush, which the manual calls the “agitator.” What was more agitating than this brush was the sparse drawing overlaid with arrows in all directions. The few words of description were useless, and only after significant yanking and cursing did I find the tiny locking tabs that were the secret to success.

Other clues I wish were provided in owners manuals:
  • To reset the low-tire-pressure gauge in my car, press the well-hidden button in the glove box.
  • To restart my mother’s cable box after a service outage, hold the power button for five seconds.
  • To restore service to my Internet radio, unplug and replug the power cord.
Simple solutions? Definitely. What made them difficult was finding the answers, which sometimes came from online chats, from calls to service departments, or trial-and-error approach.

I don’t envy technical writers who work on owners manuals. They don’t know much about their audience or how much their audience knows about their product. They don’t know which details to include or how detailed to make their answers.

One thing technical writers do know, and practice quite well, is to appease company lawyers and make sure any potential liability is clearly identified. Take this sentence from my car manual: “If you are in a collision in which airbags deploy, wash your hands and face with mild soap and water before eating.” Personally, I’ll go to the hospital first; I think my appetite would be ruined by the crash.

As much as I love to hate owners manuals, I like having one for reference. They may not tell me what I really need to know, and often offer too much unnecessary information, but you never know when they just might come in handy.

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