/ Technology

Farewell to instruction manuals

instruction manual

Ever been utterly bemused by an instruction manual? Or bought a product that didn’t come with one at all? These days it seems we’re just expected to know how products work, but not all of us were born tech savvy…

As tech products and services become more and more sophisticated and complex, proper instructions and guidance written in plain English can help us get the best out of them.

That’s why it seems strange that manufactures don’t always do this. We’ve found from our testing, and from many of you, that some manuals just aren’t written in jargon-free, easy-to-understand plain English. The simple question is, why not?

Tested to instruction

Instruction manuals can seem rather old fashioned and many people just won’t have a need to even take them out of the box. But we know that there are still those of us that rely on them when they get stuck with their products.

We assess instruction manuals on some products as part of our testing to see how easy they are to set up and use. And we unearth some bizarre examples. For example, this clear-as-mud snippet is from an indoor TV aerial manual:

‘When interconnecting equipment and to get the best carrier to noise then place the digital terrestrial television set top box as the first item in the signal path followed by any video or satellite receiver.’

Umm OK…

Time to be clear

Sometimes, you may even find there’s no manual at all and instead you’re left to your own, ahem, devices. You may think that in this case people should just work it out for themselves, but that supposes they have a good enough technical ability to do this. Plus, it’s often the case that on-screen menus just aren’t clear enough, being littered with confusing instructions and language.

And then things can get even more complicated with permission warnings – the little boxes that pop up with apps or websites asking our permission to do this or that. If these important warnings are worded in a way that you don’t understand, how can you know what you’re actually agreeing to?

We’re currently investigating the instructions and guidance (or lack of) we get with our technology products and services. So, do you have any examples of confusing language used in tech product literature? What do you feel about the hard-copy manuals being replaced with on-screen instructions?

Do you still want hard-copy manuals?

Yes - I can't live without them (60%, 994 Votes)

Maybe - depends on if the manual is easy to find online (32%, 538 Votes)

No - think of the trees! (8%, 125 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,657

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I can usually cope fairly well without instruction manuals but they can be useful to discover features that might not otherwise be obvious.

There is no excuse for providing poorly written instructions and the fact that many electronic products come with some sort of display screen makes them easier to use without resorting to a manual.

When the UK started to import a lot of goods from overseas in the 70s there were some instructions were full of amusing statements. A friend had a Russian SLR camera with a warning to ‘keep your fingers off the flipping mirror’. I have seen ‘Your statutory rights are not effected’ more than once.

Depends on the manual/product . I have a recent camera manual that is around 80 pages and fits in the camera bag. And pretty much all of the manual is actually useful as you try to remember how to use certain settings that you last used a year ago.

Particularly to the point if you are currently in Turkey and your chances of looking up a manual on-line [ if you can get a signal] are near to nil.

So I think I would like to vote for “Depends ..”

Don Bellham says:
14 March 2015

My expensive, complicated bridge camera ought to have had a printed manual & not a CD (but not in a dozen languages). A manual is user-friendly. I tend to play around with controls rather than hunt for the provided disc information on my PC. Sometimes I print off A4 pages to save returning – what’s the environment-saving then?

Any important manual that I need, I usually download the PDF version to my Tablet and use a Tablet’s pdf app or the Kindle app to read and navigate it.

Currently I have the manuals/handbooks for my new car, smart TV, washing machine, bridge camera, mobile phone and the Tablet’s own manual sitting on my Tablet.

The pdf versions are usually easier to navigate, have a search function, don’t get lost, don’t wear out and don’t use trees. Win. Win. Win. Win.

Cunning. I use an e-reader for the same idea where the manual contains a serious amount of information and I might like to browse it – and gives me a back-up. [Normally when daughter borrows said item and manual and then rings asking for clarification]

As for the camera manual I know full well I can use a paper product much more swiftly and not worry about glare, losing power or mechanical failure.

I have thought with the cheapness of online storage that a consumer body could store such manuals AND allow for comments from readers that expand or refute what the manual says. Also means any up-dated manual could be brought to the attention of earlier buyers.

Yesterday, someone posted on one of the Convos that they had lost their washing machine manual. I thought I would be helpful and find it online and post a link, but I could not find it. Some manufacturers are better than others in providing information on their websites, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it will be there for.

On the other hand I have had no difficulty in finding a detailed manual for a 24V alternator that is probably 40 years old.

If having an electronic manual is important it is probably best to check it is available, download it and then buy the camera etc.

Jolly good – if you’ve got a tablet. Personally I haven’t got one (had one as a freebie with a printer but couldn’t work out how to use it!) and I wouldn’t want to lug it about on wildlife trips. Gimme the manual manual – in ONLY my language please. I have a smart-phone but can’t use and/or don’t want most of the ‘features’ – e.g. how do I get it to translate (say) spoken English into Spanish – seen it done once but can’t remember how.

Chris says:
15 March 2015

I need a manual to understand ‘Convos’ so it really depends on how familiar the user is with what’s in front of him/her.

Sorry Chris. I thought the context would give it away. I think our mentors abbreviate Which? Conversation to Which? Convo rather than just Convo.

Before buying a complex product, I usually download the PDF manual from the manufacturer’s web site in order to establish whether the functionality meets my requirements. This usually answers a lot of questions that are not answered in sales material.

Once I have the product, a PDF manual is much more useful than a printed manual because you can quickly search for a particular word or phrase. If a manual is hundreds of pages long, this is impractical with a printed version. I have PDFs manuals for all my products on my laptop so I can find them instantly whenever I need them. The same could not be same of printed manuals.

PDF manuals should become the norm. If people really need a printed version, they should print it themselves. Giving out printed manuals to people who don’t want them is wasteful and unnecessarily damages the environment.

You and I can cope without printed manuals, but spare a thought for those who don’t have printers or even computers.

I suspect that those who want printed manuals cause less environmental damage than those who buy the latest electronic gadgets.

“I suspect that those who want printed manuals cause less environmental damage than those who buy the latest electronic gadgets.”

Much depends on how much you use your ‘gadget’ and how you measure the ‘damage’. But my Tablet and mobile have saved printing dozens of books and manuals, eliminated the needed for hundreds of paper notes or letters, saved hundreds of DVDs and CD being manufactured, found the shortest and most economical routes for travelling, the cheapest nearby fuel stations, found best trains and fares, found better energy deals, cheaper (and better) home, motor and holiday insurance and saved me many hundreds of pounds buying best deals in holidays, white goods and groceries.

So maybe my tablet and mobile use some resources, but they’ve improved my life, stretched my budget and helped drive retailers into being more competitive.

Terfar – I’m quite happy with using online information too, but what about those who don’t have printers or even a computer?

Wavechange – the chances are that these people won’t be buying complex technology which necessitate manuals of hundreds of pages. If someone is buying a non-technology product and the manual is just a few pages, then fine – supply it in printed format. But for technology products, PDF-only manuals should be the norm.

That might be a reasonable compromise, NFH. Maybe including a short quick-start guide would be useful to cover the basics.

Same here wavechange, I can usually cope without them. If I get stuck in the manual/electronic installation of anything, it’s more of a “trial and error” approach 😀 There are, however, some products which I do miss getting a manual for.

Oh sure, use the tablet. Try that in the field – in, say, Belarus!

And what’s so special about Belarus? Tablets work everywhere, so the manual is always available withoug needing to carry them with you. .

Malcolm says:
23 April 2015

“Before buying a complex product, I usually download the PDF manual from the manufacturer’s web site in order to establish whether the functionality meets my requirements. This usually answers a lot of questions that are not answered in sales material.”

Great tip. Ashamed I didn’t think of myself years ago!

I recently purchased a laptop without a DVD drive and wanted to load some older software that I had on disk. Rather than searching the loft for an old external DVD drive I decided to try installing the software wirelessly from a laptop with a DVD drive. It was easy to find simple instructions online.

I commented elswhere about a 150 page in small print with small diagrams) manual for my TV DVD player / recorder. Whether in print or on line I needed a basics guide to do the set up and principal operations. My bridge camera can do a huge range of things apparently – the DVD accompanying it carrys the long manual – but it also came with a short printed booklet that told me how to take photos and movies.

As many of these devices come with, or are attached to, screens then on-screen guidance could be given for specific tasks. I forget some of the basics if I haven’t used a device for a while.

If the instructions are written in English I can usually get the gist of it but often resort to using trial and error or, as a last resort YouTube. Its all ultimately down to gender it seems as men perform much better at spatial tasks than women but women are more adept when it comes to multi-tasking. As well as gender there are age differences, and since I am still able to comprehend instructions to some degree, unfortunately when applying them I have forgotten the original instruction and have to start all over again! There is more interesting reading about this, especially as this has no bearing on intelligence. @en.m.wikipedia.org – Spatial visualization ability.

If in doubt, ask children or grandchildren.

The gender differences are well known and fascinating, but my own experience suggests that this is far too much of a generalisation.

Approaching seventy my grandchildren ask me on the basis I made my living in IT from 1964 until retiring in 2002. I have often found that by studying the specifications one can find new and undescribed features in hardware and software. Printed manuals tend to contain more as it is difficult to deny written material and product liability has led to online short versions (user manuals not containing technical specs.)

Falkenna says:
16 March 2015

People always seem to leave out that these differences are tendencies, not absolutes. For these and nearly all other “gender” differences, there is an extensive continuum.

I suppose the popularity of the “. . . for Dummies” books shows that people do like to have a manual that they can more easily read and understand.

I think you are forgetting that many people don’t look at books much these days. I’m expecting a new addition to the series: ‘Reading for Dummies’. 🙂

Yes, and every student should be given one as soon as they enrol. I used to think that with the ever-lengthening extension of education provision we would eventually end up with a literate population.

My problem with instruction manuals for things you have to put together yourself is that I cannot understand the cartoon-like pictures and exploded diagrams. I bought a small desk recently; it weighed a ton but, to save weight I suppose, the assembly instructions were printed in feint ink on a single sheet of very thin paper with a peculiar avoidance of correct perspective in the images.

My theory is that the large sheets of instructions are provided to make it difficult for anyone to scan and put on a website to help people that may have lost the instructions or have bought products secondhand.

The problem with not having a manual/instruction book is that you are not aware of all the features of the gadget you have bought. It’s annoying (and embarrassing) when you take your mobile phone back into the shop, after having had it over 12 months, to find there’s a setting that you were unaware of.

Isn’t it strange that for a hundred years we had a comprehensive telephone system that required no shops but now there are ten shops in every town? It’s all priced into the tariff, of course, but it begs the question – why is a basic landline service so expensive?

I received my Chinese made webcam less than a week ago (March’15) and it came with an instruction manual written wholly in Chinese characters. The answer I got, when I quizzed the supplier, Kldeals, was that the webcam was plug-and-play. However the manual had two illustrations: one showing that the lens could be rotated – which did alter the focussing on experimentation and another one which I still don’t understand – after asking them! The webcam also has a switch, which the suppliers have told me “can be used when you take a photo with your computer itself not with a application”, but they have not yet told me how to do this. Their parting shot on their last e-mail was:
“It is easy to use, so the supplier don’t have a English manual, hope you can understand, thank you. But per your suggestion, we could try to advise the supplier to write a English manual.”
The purchase was made through Amazon marketplace. Can I insist on the supply of a manual written in (understandable) English?

Probably not, but you might be able to reject the product because, without a comprehensive and comprehensible manual, it is not fit for purpose.

I used to be an engineer – albeit a mechanical and hydraulic engineer who learned about electrics and electronics as I got promoted from the experts with me. But in the 25 years since I retired there has been a whole new world of technology develop with jargon that just wasn’t there in my day – there wasn’t the technology for it!. I have recently been baffled by a very poor manual that came with a Humax PVR. A very good product let down by a manual that has made it difficult to get the best out of it. And at least I’m able from my earlier knowledge to eventually find my way round it.
My youngest daughter once replied to my email asking what on earth she was talking about gave me a step by step set of instructions on how to text on our newly acquired first mobile phone. The last line in the instructions was “should you still be struggling, ask any passing eleven year old”. Maybe that’s the best bit of advice for all of us over 70.

Baldy says:
14 March 2015

Whatever form the manual is in, it has to be easily understood by non technical people. Surely it’s easy, but I suspect never done, to circulate a draft manual to a range of potential users and if any part of it isn’t quickly understandable, it must be rewritten, again and again if necessary, until it is. Maybe Which could include a ‘manual rating’ in product reviews.

Methuselah says:
14 March 2015

For certain appliances e.g. a gas boiler which requires regular servicing a good manual remains essential.

Gas boilers don’t require any maintenance as such. It’s just gas engineers like a regular income that contributes nothing. Other than sticking a probe into the exhaust pipe to check burn efficiency and occasionally blowing out the dust, there’s nothing to do.

Our boiler was installed in 2002. An annoying known motherboard fault, which caused the trip/reset button to activate with increasing regularity, required a motherboard replacement in 2006. (I found an exchange motherboard on eBay with a full set of instructions for £55 and it took me 20 minutes to replace it.)

It is now 13 years old and works like a dream. So total cost has been £115. £55 for an exchange motherboard plus £60 for two CO monitors for safety (which only last 5 years). When it breaks down, I’ll replace it as I see little point in repairing a boiler that’s over 13 years old.

David says:
14 March 2015

Far too many manuals, both on and off line are written by the designers of the product without a though as to the end user. They also fail by assuming that a level of knowledge already exists in thew buyer. In some cases they are correct, but in many the buyer is new either to the class of product or just the product itself. I echo the call by Bady that any manual should pass the test of being easily understood by anyone you stop in the street and, if not, it should be revised as many times as necessary until it is.

I have a digital camera (not a point-and-shoot, quite a complex piece of equipment) where the only manual provided was on a CD. That’s not much use when I’m out taking photos! Fortunately I managed to buy a pocket-sized printed manual on line.

I’m not completely computer-illiterate, I used to work with computers before I retired, and I love my (rather elderly) computer. But I find it much more difficult to take in information when I see it on a screen than when it’s printed on paper. I don’t know why this is, but speaking to other people my age I find that they mostly feel the same. Maybe it’s what you get used to when you’re young?

As for the quality of English in some manuals, whether on line or on paper, if it wasn’t so infuriating it would be hilarious! Still things haven’t changed that much over the years. When I used to be a computer programmer, our definition of a technical manual was “a 3-inch thick book without an index”!

clive says:
14 March 2015

I bought a Kazam mobile phone and when I got it home there were no instructions. I have managed to set it up but still struggle with some issues such as taking a photo. I e-mailed the manufacturer and they said a manual would be produced to down load, but it still hasn’t happened.I e-mailed a second time and still no respons e after about 6 months.

It’s all very well for the tree hugging greenies, but what happens when the batteries run down???
Answer me that!
Anyone who has worked in the Middle East knows that in those thousands of square mile of rocks and sand there are precious few charging points, even in this day and age.
Think of all the practical aspects of the printed manual, you can start a fire, jammed in tight enough, plug holes in dykes, and if you are ever “caught short,” all those pages in Albanian to Zulu are very useful. You can’t do that with your smartphone!
Where’s the Admiral Benbow when you need it?? Aaargh.

Aaargh, Jim Lad! Greetings! There’s a few more Conversations on here that could do with some straight-talking from Treasure Island.

Ann Bruton says:
14 March 2015

I was given a Kindle Fire Tablet recently and all the instructions are on the device. As an OAP I find it hard to read through pages of instructions them implement them from memory. I would much prefer a hard copy which I could refer to whilst using my tablet.

Richard says:
14 March 2015

My trouble with the digital world started in 2002 when I was issued with a Siemens mobile phone at work. I took it and the two instruction books,one basic, the second more complicated,home to read. I could not understand them. This has been my difficulty with the digital world since, with few exceptions.In the Analogue days I enjoyed reading the instruction books, which often dealt with most basic matters first. Digital instructions often leave these out. I could write a book on this subject!!!