If no one reads the manual, that’s NOT okay

December 28, 2009

While catching up on my email, I just read Tom Johnson’s latest post, “If no one reads the manual, that’s okay” and have to respectfully disagree.

Tom, you make excellent points – I am aware that most users will call support before they’ll crack the spine on a shrink-wrapped user guide, but it’s still not okay. It’s not okay because we are still stuck with the tools and environments and processes that compel us to write and deliver those guides. Why are we not listening to our users?

I agree – users despise manuals.  This was a bitter lesson for me. I love to read. I love books. I love printed matter in all its forms. I do not understand people who don’t like reading. My husband is such a creature. With his help, I’ve come to – well, not understand it. ( I never will understand.) I’ve come to accept it. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.  As my husband explains it, he has better things to do with his time than to research a problem or an error that designers should have solved before they released the product.  That usually sparks half a smile from me, because I’m also a student of “good enough” quality.  I understand the reality of producing a product on schedule and on budget. Some things just cannot be fixed by release date and so, are tossed into the documentation as a known issue or perhaps a task with a strange procedure.

So, if we know they’re not reading the documentation in the first place, why are we putting information there?

Instead of shaking our heads sadly that our work rarely gets read, shouldn’t we be researching how people really do learn a product’s use?  If most people hate to read, would they watch a video? Would they chat with other users in a public forum? Would they attend webinars? That old adage about the definition of insanity pops into my mind… Why, if “64% of men and 24% of women don’t read the manual before calling support”, are we still delivering them?  Why, if as “Ron Jeffries writes, ‘Your customer hates big manuals. He has shelves and boxes full of them just like you do.'(Manuals in Extreme Programming)”, are we still delivering them? Why, if as “Sheila Fahey of Cherryleaf explains, ‘When things go wrong and it matters to the user, they will seek assistance. They will look for the easiest way to get to the information they need to do the task. If this is the manual, then they will use it.’ (If no-one reads the manual, then why bother?)”, are we not making it easier to get the information they need to do the task?

I recently found a line of t-shirts emblazoned with the old RTFM slogan. After grinning and – yes – shaking my head sadly at the profundity – I am forced to acknowledge that when something becomes so true a t-shirt can explain it, it’s time to change.

We can’t afford to indulge the fantasy any longer – manuals are out of style. This should be a wake-up call. If users won’t read, how will YOU get them the information they need to use your product?



  1. Hi Patty

    Good points. It does come back to “are we listeing to the users”? I posted my comments over at http://www.idratherbewriting.com/2009/12/27/if-no-one-reads-the-manual-thats-okay/.

  2. No one reads the manual. Some people don’t like to read. Get used to it.

    • Agreed… that’s why I think we should be looking for other ways to provide tech info.

  3. When I was working for an outsourcing company (Let’s call it Acme) I once jokingly suggested to my boss that our slogan should be “Acme–because nobody read the manual anyway”

  4. […] If no one reads the manual, that’s NOT okay […]

  5. […] I began Write Trends some months back, my focus has been on Thinking Outside the Book, which nobody reads anyway (sigh).  In theory, a wiki seems like a great way to provide critical customer information […]

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: