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By Jack Ganssle


Published 5/30/2002

An article in the Washington Post's business section ( revealed vendors' frustrations with users who will not read product manuals. The Post claims that customers prefer calling tech support over digging through the supplied tomes. Even car manufacturers now provide "quick start" guides that supplement the main manual, in an attempt to convey at least the essential info to the new owner. Vendors complain that users who don't read the manuals burn up too much expensive phone support time.

Like most of us engineers, I buy a lot of high technology goodies. And, like most consumers, I hate reading the manuals. But much worse than a huge eye-glazing manual are the brief pamphlets that accompany today's products. Most are unreadable or devoid of content. The quick-starts are of dubious value and accuracy. Hey - you really don't have to tell me how to plug the thing in!

The last thing I want to do is call tech support and be put on interminable hold, listening to the whining falsettos of the Bee Gees interrupted at frequent intervals by a recording assuring me that this call is really important to the company. Those customers with the saintly patience to hang on long enough to get through to a support person then find themselves confronted with an individual who knows less about what's going on than most farm animals.

As a fairly-knowledable techie I find my intelligence insulted by support's patronizing assumption that all callers are idiots. A preemptive "I'm an engineer, I know how to insert the CD-ROM," accelerates the call not even a nanometer per fortnight.

My HP Pavillion desktop is a nice machine, reliable and fast. The manual, such as it is, is so minimal it's nearly lost in the packing material. An on-line help facility offers little; web linkages predominate - not much help in one ultimately futile battle to get the DSL modem up. The 56kb standard modem, like most, eats up one serial port. Which one? No one knows. It's not in the manual, the on-line help is helpless, and tech support can do nothing other than repeat a mantra suggesting that it's COM3 or COM4, probably. Or maybe not.

Check out a video camera. My Sony has 57 buttons and controls. For a lousy camera. The docs are long on special effects and short on basic functionality. Some of the buttons will remain mysteries since previous experiences with Sony's support left me aghast and angry.

Early PCs came with a shelf-load of documents. The hardware book even included the BIOS source code and complete schematics. Not only were the books complete, they were elegantly cloth-bound, obviously valuable, and prized by owners. Yet in those days systems were very simple and there was little to know. Today's screaming computers offer myriad options, modes and features, with most unexplained and thus forever unused.

Products are over-featured and under-documented. Once software developer for a big consumer products company admitted to me recently that their products don't really work well, "because no one will actually use all those features."

Cut the features, make it work, and give me a decent manual.