It's all in the manual - but does anyone actually read it?

Sun, 1 Mar 2009, 4:16pm

Panasonic manual download page

Had to give a presentation recently to the whole of our business group here at Haymarket, explaining why the forums are so successful.

I kicked off by showing the audience a fistful of hefty manuals - one for an AV receiver, one for a Blu-ray player and one for a TV - and pointing out that you needed to read the whole lot to get a relatively simple home cinema system up and running.

'No-one bothers,' I said, 'And that explains the success of the forums.'

You see, apart from the rows and disputes - with which I have to admit we deal pretty summarily, given the limited moderation resources at our disposal - the vast majority of forum threads in which I get involved concern troubleshooting. 

You know, the connection of this to that, or why this and that don't seem to respond as the user is expecting.

- Why doesn't the HD light come on?
- Why doesn't the receiver recognise the rear speakers?
- Can I connect this output to that input?
- Why won't this upscale that?
- Why don't I get a picture/any sound when I...?

Forum regulars will have seen such threads a thousand times, and in just about every case the answer is to be found somewhere in the instruction manual.

'RTFM' - the universal solution?
So 'RTFM' - 'read the flaming manual', to keep things proper - is the universal solution, right? Well, that and retailers and distributors who know the products they sell from front to back and inside out, and are willing to provide the answers to all those niggling questions.

Trouble is, 'the flaming manual' is usually totally impenetrable, not to mention massive. I have large - and ever-growing - folders of instruction manuals on my computers, both in the office and at home, and usually find I can answer most questions by hauling down a PDF of the product manual and searching through it.

Sony manual page

And this isn't the first time I have broached this subject in these blogs: I wrote a piece about impenetrable instruction manuals about 18 months ago. But it seems nothing has changed.

Two things have prompted me to return to the matter: downloading a manual the other day for a product to find it ran to 800+ pages, admittedly in several languages, and an exchange with a forum poster about a product problem he was having.

Having solved the problem at some length, and pointed him to the relevant page - page 71 - of the manual, I wondered aloud why manufacturers even bother including a manual with products, when clearly no-one bothers reading them.

After all, I mused, they could save a lot if they trimmed a kilo of shipped weight, created by all the paperwork in the box, off each AV receiver they were moving around the world.

'Yeah, yeah, whatever' by page 4
To which the poster replied: "Yes, but as you said - page 71!! I think I started saying 'yeah, yeah, whatever' by page 4!!"

Page 4 would only have got him to the end of the endless safety precautions...

Trouble is, I have an inkling all but the most conscientious of retailers wouldn't have got much beyond page 4, either - and so, should our forum poster have called the place he bought the product, the staff there wouldn't have had much of a clue, either.

And of course, if a magazine website is prepared to offer such a troubleshooting service for consumers, that's another thing all but the best retailers need not bother with, then...

So, the onus is on the manufacturer or distributor's helpline. And while you may be lucky with one of the smaller, more specialist companies, and actually get to talk to someone who knows the product, the biggest companies will have customer service centres either run centrally or even subcontracted out.

Which means if it's not on the operator's script or FAQ screen, you're probably out of luck.

So you post a question on the forums, and we try to help.

Where's the 'help' button?
In that earlier blog post, I mentioned how well Bose, for one, did this set-up thing: a large, clear 'get started' sheet, and a DVD or CD to 'walk you through' the set-up and tuning procedure. But I think today's products could go further...

I've recently bought a new netbook computer and a mobile phone, and both have 'help' buttons I can press if I get confused. And the Logitech Harmony remote I use all the time has a similar key, which will solve problems by asking questions and providing solutions.

Surely it should be possible to do such a thing on an AV receiver, given all the processing power built-in? You press a help button, you're given a list of possible symptoms, and the unit offers a diagnosis.

Or even better, tries some solutions out for you, and asks 'Did that solve the problem?'

In idle moments, I sometimes wonder if there isn't a business model in setting up a company purely dedicated to taking manufacturer's instruction manuals, sitting down with them and the product, and rewriting them into a form according with how consumers actually use the product, rather than the way designers and engineers think about them.

Beware of geeks bearing manuals
In other words, taking manuals written by consumer electronics geeks for consumer electronics geeks, and turning them not just into plain English, but simple step-by-steps based on how the product will be set up and operated.

Such a process might even avoid the occasional compatibility problems that pop up, such as the recent Sony receiver problems with Sky+HD's optical audio output.

That happened purely because no-one had done the 'what if?' process, let alone tried the product in real-world circumstances on the ground, rather than in the R&D lab - and such slips are hugely embarrassing

It's a tempting idea, at least in those idle moments in traffic jams and the like. But with the huge numbers of new products continuing to roll off the production lines, each with its own inch-thick manual, life might just be too short...


Oh, how right you are Andrew! Two recent experiences spring to mind.

Not so long ago I bought a new Apple Mac computer. When I opened the box, there was a large fold-out sheet on the top of all the packaging, with a 10-step 'idiot's guide' to setting it all up.

I followed each step carefully and, hey presto, within 10 minutes my Mac was up and running perfectly.

Compare that with trying to sync my new mobile phone to my car's 'multimedia' system the other day via Bluetooth.

I've had the car two years, and must admit I'd never read the manual for said multimedia system (which controls the sat nav, DVD player, phone, aircon etc.)

Why? Because the manual for that is, literally, twice the size of the one for the car itself.

After spending a large part of last weekend finally reading the darn think, I still felt as if I needed a degree in electronics just to add some new phone numbers from my mobile to the car's phonebook.

Technlogy, don't you love it?

Andrew.  It is with some trepidation now that I look forward to opening the boxes of kit that will comprise my new home cinema system!  Perhaps you really should give some serious consideration to that entrepreneurial business opportunity idea of yours to release deciphered versions of manuals?  Meanwhile I shall endeavour to get beyond P.4 of the tomes that will be my bedtime reading next week before I post a plea for help. Best Regards.  DRM.

Well Andrew, if ever you decide that your business model has legs and you need someone else to take the weight off, give me a call.  I am currently unemployed and a sub-editor of some 25 years standing who is a self-confessed geek about all things electronic and digital.  I actually attempted setting up a class for people to get the best out of their hi-fi/home cinema/computer/digital camera which failed because no-one wanted to pay for it.  Perhaps if manufacturers were to outsource the 'translation' of their manuals rather than the operation of their helplines we would all be happier bunnies.

If you fancy looking into the feasibility of such a business you could make my day! (Which just happens to be my birthday).

Happy birthday, Mr Patten - but I think it'll remain a pipedream...

I have (sadly) wondered about how well manuals are translated in other languages.  

Admittedly it is not HiFi but standard white goods but my Aunt was an official translator into three other languages of English manuals and a translator into English from any of those three.  She carried on with this work into her 70's and was qualified as a 'technical translator' because she spent a couple of years as a BT operator in the 1970's.  She never could operate her video.

I still have a chuckle when I read a manual that makes no sense and wonder who translated it...

On the PC front, a new Evesham PC had an A3 colour sheet idiots guide that had me up and running in twenty minutes.  There was also a helpline number but I didn't need it...(does that make me an idiot?)

Another thought:  I got a 500 page manual with my new SLR camera.  

I bought a 25 page guide from Amazon that has everything I need and a nice 'quick check' card that I can keep with the camera.. I never have opened the manufacturers book.

Andrew, there is a gap in the market for a book that covers the fundamentals of home cinema. To an extent this is because technology moves so quickly and things change all too rapidly. A year ago I was starting to consider my first home cinema set up and searched in vain for a suitable book.

This is another reason the forum is such a success - contributors provide a wealth of information for newbies based on real, practical experience.

EDITED BY MODS - please don't discuss banned members

On the subject of reading manuals - I generally do try to read them through curiosity about what I might achieve with my new kit. My problem is that whilst the manual might tell you how to configure widget X it doesn't tell you why you might want to do that and the benefit you might then glean. I find this especially frustrating with my AV receiver, I have surely only scratched the surface of its capabilities because I don't understand everything it can do - someone write the book!

When I picked up my Yam DSP Z7 it came with a manual in Chinese and one in Spanish. Given that neitrher of these languages are a strong point I was pleased to discover that on power on the amp pretty much forced you to run the base setup routine from the gui. Some days later after much reading and experimentation I've ended up with all the settings almost exactly as per the initial setup (+1db on the centre if you;re really concerned).

So kudo's to Yamaha. While you'll still need to RTFM to get the best from the product you can at least get up and running without too much effort...


I have to completely agree with you on this topic.  I can't even remember the last time I actually read a whole manual.  In fact I just got a new blackberry and only picked and choosed which sections I actually read.  Just enough to get me through.