Is Operating Manual a Thing of the Past?


The best thing to do before using a new piece of equipment is to read the instructions, right?  This sounds like the most logical approach, but do we do it?  When we get a new piece of software, or buy a new smart phone, how many of us actually read an operating manual before attempting to use the new thing? My guess is – not many.

It used to be different…

Thinking, say, fifteen years back, all computer software came with big, fat user manuals.  At work, we had a bookcase full of various editions of Windows and MS Office manuals which were so heavy, they could be sold by weight.  I have to say, I usually tried to avoid using them – it was much easier and quicker to go and ask someone ‘more techy’ how to do this or that.  And given that human nature is open to flattery, most people ‘in the know’ gladly obliged, basking in the glory of being the ‘office technical gurus’ and allowing my laziness to flourish.

At some point, Microsoft and other companies started shifting more and more of user manual contents on the web and hard copies of the manuals started becoming increasingly rare, until they more or less disappeared. Perhaps, they still exist somewhere, but it’s been a very long time since I last saw a hard copy of any manual. This is not such a bad thing – not having to print volumes of instructions saves a lot of money, along with a few trees on the way and a reduction in carbon footprint.

Now we want things to be ‘user-friendly’

With improved software and user interface, we have become increasingly reliant on things being ‘user-friendly’, i.e. easy to operate from the word go. When we buy a new gadget, we don’t want to spend a week learning how to use it, we want to take it out of a box and use it straight away.

I am a prime example of someone who has become very ‘technology-lazy’ and just not patient enough to be spending time on reading instructions.  I expect software and hardware to be intuitive enough to use for me to just switch things on and start using them.  I don’t buy things which come with an ‘operating challenge’.  I am pretty sure I am not the only one with this attitude – there must be a reason why most phones don’t come with user manuals any more.

But what if something needs an explanation?

All good so far,  but what about those few things which are a bit more tricky and not quite intuitive enough to be figured out  by  trial and error? Wouldn’t a user manual be ideal to use in such situations? Perhaps, for a small percentage of people it would, but the vast majority, at the first sign of trouble, head straight for Google or another search engine, type in their question and get an answer. Much easier and quicker than having to figure out which particular section of the manual they would have to read to be able to find a solution to their problem. Somebody has been there and done that – why reinvent the wheel?

It seems to me that improved gadgets and software interfaces, combined with easy accesses to information on internet and human laziness,  are about to make traditional manuals extinct.

There is only one type of gadget where I’m seriously struggling without a user manual  – a TV or Sky box remote control. Laugh what you want, but these darn things just have too many buttons and are as counter-intuitive to use as can be. Unfortunately,  I have put the instructions away, somewhere very safe…

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