Business Writing

Manuals: Why They Do Not Matter

Christmas, 2009:
The penguin wrapping paper is shredded from an oblong, rectangular package, carefully branded by a stark white apple on black monochrome — The Apple iPod ® Nano. The product is reverently lifted from the case along with the ear buds and sleek quick start guide, leaving the thick, intimidating, and unhelpful paper manual in the bottom — it might as well have been packing peanuts. Why do manufacturers bother with the archaic manual documentation which wastes paper, takes up unneeded space, and adds weight to the shipping fee? The product is blithely toyed with, prodded, poked, and explored without so much as a cursory glance to the woe begotten manual in the box, the user happily glancing through the quick start guide if they come upon any snags in the process of operating their new system. The manual is never read, collects dust, and slowly sinks into oblivion. Let’s explore why the manual falls to such a fate.

I have to read through all of that!?

Technical manuals are daunting. Easily composed of at least 50 or more pages, documentation in manual form is a stack of paperwork bound together with minimal organization, most of which is inaccurate and leads the user into an hour-long search for the index and the appropriate page for “diagram b-1.2.” Not to mention when the appropriate page is wrangled, the content is full of jargon, technical words, and number/symbol references which often do not correspond to the device or your particular model. Ignoring the fact that most manuals are dry, boring, and do not communicate well to the average reader, they are poorly designed. Logically, a user would immediately peruse the front or back of the manual for the index or the appendix; unfortunately, staggering amounts of manuals do not provide those, causing the reader to flip through endless amounts of pages, glancing over the titles and hoping what they think is organized there really is. Ever walk into a grocery aisle and wonder why your favorite brand of iced tea is located in the ‘juice’ aisle, but not in the ‘specialty drinks’ with the rest of the beverages?

Insert tab A into slot B

Simplicity is the best way to communicate unfamiliar tasks and procedures. One has to wonder if the paper manual is so large due to all of the explanations for explanations. Consider your grade school Social Studies class: What was the point of “skimming” through paragraphs of information for one-or-two word fill-in-the-blank papers? Perhaps it was to prepare consumers for the need to sift through pages of useless information. If the manual is already a compiled document on the intricacies and complexities of your product, e.g., research, why must you continue to research that document for the appropriate solution? Manuals could be more effective if the words were tightened, the ideas communicated thoroughly, and the explanations given simply, scaling a 250 page document down to 100 pages of useful information. Brevity is indeed an acquired skill.

No John, you cannot wirelessly link to my brain to upload those system specs…

Since brain to brain communication has yet to be achieved, we must rely on verbal, written, and many times visual communication to express our ideas and thoughts. Keeping in mind how the consumer learns is an advantage in creating useful documentation for their purposes. The ink saved on extraneous explanations can be applied usefully to helpful pictures, diagrams, and visual representations of written instructions. Knowing what you’re writing about will also help to convey detail about certain aspects of a product; however, you must understand that the average consumer does not have the expertise, knowledge, or familiarity with technical data like developers do. While developers are a mountain of knowledge about the product they have created, they are so familiar with it and technical processes that they cannot detach themselves from it in order to effectively communicate to end users how to operate it. Developers are brilliant on many accounts; sadly, communication is not one of them.


As always, if you have a problem, you’d better start thinking about how to solve it. In point of fact, manuals are outdated, unhelpful, poorly written, and hard to understand; what the consumer wants is a concise, easy-to-read instruction booklet on how to operate, solve problems with, and utilize the products they buy. This can be achieved in thin, well written quick start guides that are packed with the necessary information in a succinct form. Larger, more detailed manuals can be put on discs, digital media applications, or in web-based user help forums to help negate cluttered product boxes, waste of paper, and frustrated consumers.

2 replies on “Manuals: Why They Do Not Matter”

“Search” — most software techwriters provide searchable PDFs and WebHelp. Most of our users don’t even know the index exists, unfortunately. Print manuals are going the way of the dinosaur.

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