Had to give a presentation recently to the whole of our business group here at Haymarket, explaining why the whathifi.com 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.
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...