When all else fails, read the instructions

Captain Rumpelstoss: But… how will I learn to fly, Herr Colonel?

Colonel Manfred von Holstein: The way we do everything in the German army: from the book of instructions.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines


The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient analogue computer with a series of 37 interlocking dials that was used to calculate astronomical positions. It was crafted with the precision and complexity of a Swiss clock, but it was actually made in 150 BC. Such craftsmanship would not be seen for another 1,000 years. Recovered in 1900, from a shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, the mechanism had initially baffled scientists, who had no idea what it was used for. They tried reverse engineering it. Fortunately they were helped by script etched on the Antikythera mechanism’s wooden housing. This could be considered the world’s first instruction manual. Deciphering it must have been a complex task, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from these experts. But today’s manuals also present a massive challenge. Modern-day instructionese sometimes feels like Ancient Greek to me. Trying to understand it is one of life’s more frustrating experiences. Indeed for some it can lead to read rage. Today I will be looking at instruction manuals and why they can be so exasperating.

Why are instruction manuals so hard to understand? There are linguistic challenges. Languages deal with and describe reality but this is so complex that any individual attempt to represent it comes up against an important obstacle – actions are, by their very nature, indescribable in words. We can only ever approximate reality.

A typical manual will include instructions for the setup, normal usage, programming maintenance and troubleshooting of your device. In the past manuals would include detailed repair information. However, with the increase in products’ complexity and functions, this information has been disappearing. The fact is that many devices are so cheap it’s just not worth repairing them.

We need to analyse the manufacturers and their products. Many companies seem to assume that the user will know all the technical terms about their product, and do not bother explaining them. I think many of the problems originate in the design. Good design of the products and the user interface is not prioritised. They have lots of engineers, but few or no human factors designers. Designs seem to be feature-oriented rather than task-oriented. The attitude is one of adding more and more features rather than trying to think what the customer will want to do with the device. I have noticed this with DVD players, especially the cheap ones. They tend to have lots of buttons making them really hard to use. On the other I have a Phillips which has fewer buttons. I am not a big Apple fan, but they do make many of their interfaces intuitive. A really well designed product wouldn’t need an instruction manual.

The quality of documentation can also leave a lot to be desired. Many manufacturers do not hire enough technical writers. To save money they will create a single manual for all international markets. So you end a massive booklet, but only a few of those pages are in your language. They will also use one manual for many different models, which can make it more difficult to find the information relating to the particular model we have bought. They want to keep these manuals as compact as possible and so the type-size of the text is a problem for those of us who are in our late 40s.

You get the feeling that many of the writers did not have the product to hand when preparing the manual. However I wouldn’t want the actual designers writing the manuals. They are too close to their creations and tend to make assumptions about what the users will know.

And when it comes to texts originally written in another tongue the problems multiply. Products can now be made all over the world and the meaning can be lost in translation. Many firms evidently do not bother to get their translations checked by a competent English speaker. In instructions this is especially problematic. As precision is so important poor language can make it difficult or impossible to understand what is meant. Do they consumer test new instructions?

We are also partly to blame. We can be lazy. I often think that life is too short to wade through these manuals – they are not exactly compelling reading. If I can get by, I tend to avoid the instructions at all costs. It also depends on our motivation. When I am interested in something, I will make that extra effort. I suppose the people in tech support will come at this from a different perspective. Indeed they have an acronym RTFM, which stands for “Read The Fucking Manual”. There is even a website, http://www.readthefuckingmanual.com, where they dish out some practical advice:

If you believe that you may be one of those who, for some strange reason cannot get your product to work, then this is the site for you. Each time you experience a problem installing or using a product, please come to this site to read the following advice, and what do you know… IT’S FREE OF CHARGE! And another thing… It may even work!:


If you follow this advice, probability is that up to 8 times out of 10, you can solve your own problem right there and then, without any hassle and frustration, and without having to call the manufacturer. The manufacturer will tell you to RTFM anyway!

I think that today many product manuals are generally much better than they were in the past I particularly like the quickstart guides, which are so useful for getting quickly accustomed to the basic operations of the product. But there is still room for improvement. It would be nice if companies stuck with simpler designs. I remember a Sony Television I used to have. It had a reversible remote control – one side was for dummies with just the most common buttons, while the other was for the more sophisticated users. The internet is a wonderful tool if you have a problem with a product that the manual can’t solve. You can search the company’s website and look online for solutions from other users of the item that’s giving you trouble. Those how-to videos are especially useful. I like the amateur stuff. It is written by people like us who understand our difficulties. Maybe there really is light at the end of this particular technological tunnel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: