/ Technology

Do you miss the printed instruction booklet?

Big book leafed through by woman

These days more and more gadgets don’t come with printed instruction manuals, but I think that for certain gadgets nothing beats a handy paper guide you can refer to when needed.

The disappearance of printed manuals has happened fairly quickly, and I blame the CD.

Back in the early 90s a copy of (the then revolutionary) Microsoft Windows 3.1 came with a bible-sized tome – the 650-page “User guide” and the relatively lightweight “Getting started…” guide, itself stretching to a mere 96 sheets of densely-printed black and white text.

Had a problem with your Windows? The answer lurked somewhere within one of those guides. And although there were no internet help forums in those days, we survived – book open on the desk, flickering monitor in front. The acronym “RTFM” became commonplace, strongly encouraging people to turn to the user guide when stuck.

Then we took a giant leap forward. The box you brought home was somehow lighter, emptier, devoid of gravitas. The answers to your questions, the troubleshooters, the setup instructions – were all uprooted from their paper and crammed onto CD-Rom bundled in with the software.

This, of course, meant a whole new method of head-scratching. Now you had your troublesome software in one half of the screen, while you simultaneously read about how to fix it in the other.

Manuals missing from gadgets

But it’s not just about software – printed manuals are now disappearing from cameras, mobiles, printers etc. And if you are lucky enough to get one, only five of the pages are English with the other unwieldy 50 pages assuming you’re happy to make life a bit more interesting by reading the instructions in Polish, Czech or Swedish.

Other devices come with a quick start guide – perhaps a single sheet that optimistically attempts to summarise the workings of a gadget more technologically advanced than early spacecraft into perhaps 100 words and a couple of pictograms. Less is not always more.

There’s even a digital equivalent of the chicken and the egg conundrum. Need to know how to turn on your new ebook reader? The instructions are supplied as an ebook, stored on the reader itself. Admittedly e-reader’s aren’t the most complex of tech gadgets, but they’re perhaps not intuitive to all buyers.

Of course, the environmental argument is clearly against hefty printed manuals. But many of us, myself included, actually enjoy having a paper manual in front of us. Cameras, especially, encourage experimentation and having a booklet to browse is part of that experience.

Giving us a CD and expecting us to print off our own user manual is often both tiresome and even more wasteful of paper. But maybe you’re glad to see the back of good old fashioned printed instruction booklets?


I’m perfectly happy with a CD instruction book – I do print out a few pages.

You know, I have to say Al, I’m not too bothered with the problem you talk about – that is, having a CD instead of an instruction booklet. What I do get annoyed about is when products don’t come with any instructions at all – instead they come with a little slip with a link to a web page.

So you’ll have to go online for your instructions and if you want better than that you have to request a CD to be sent separately in the post to you. Maybe that’s good to the environment, but it’s way too much hassle in my view. Has anybody bought something and just had a link to a website?

I bought an HTC Wildfire smartphone with a small booklet, which didn’t even tell me how to switch the phone off. Some days later I found hidden on page 5? a reference to an online manual which has been very useful indeed.
So if manufacturers expect you to use an online manual will they please make that clear and make finding it a bit easier than this.

This is one of those issues about equality and choice.

What about people with no computer? What about people with impaired vision who might find screens hard to read? What about people with no printer? What about people who just find it easier to have a booklet than to use a screen of some sort?

Personally I like the idea of no book at all but a web link, so long as the web site is kept up to date, but that won’t suit a great majority of people.

As for the language issue, I feel that the instructions should be in the language of the country in which the product is on sale and a web link or ‘phone number to get alternatives should be provided. I hope that doesn’t sound racist but I really am fed up of having something the size of a telephone directory, which is paid for in the price of the item, out of which I can only make use of half a dozen pages.

Brian Andrews says:
19 January 2011

Call me a Luddite if you like, but for most items, I still prefer a paper manual. A book can be taken to bed for some light reading; my desktop can’t (at least not without the wife complaining).

Dave S says:
19 January 2011

Agree with previous comment from Dave, it is about equality and choice.Consumers should have the option of a printed manual. some people access information better in this format and for the reasons previously outlined. Accessing information via a web link does not always prove to be an easy process.

I bought a rather nice camera a couple of years ago, which didn’t come with a printed manual – or a CD version. It’s got some pretty complicated functions and settings on it and to this day I haven’t got around to finding the manual online and printing it off.

Yes, I know I’m equally to blame for being too lazy, but I can’t understand why, with a complicated camera, anyone WOULDN’T want a printed manual. You need to take it out and about and look things up in situ – having a big wad of A4 paper just doesn’t suit that need. I don’t know how many times I’ve been out and about using my camera and said ‘we must print off the manual’ while sticking the mode to automatic because I’ve got no ideas how to use the settings.

I can see why some products, which are intuitive and straightforward to use, only have an online version, but for expensive and technically complicated gadgets a manual should be included.

Ancient Mariner says:
20 January 2011

All products should be supplied with a printed manual . Some manufacturers assume that the purchaser has a basic knowledge and do not cater for the newcomer to the product . The purchaser may not have a computer or broadband and even if they do on line access frequently times out before they have been able to find the relevant page . The older generation are more comfortable with a printed reference manual which they can bookmark . Generally speaking manufacturers only provide down loadable instruction manuals for their latest products .

I file all my instruction books and keep them until i dispose of the product and if the product goes to a charity shop the manual goes with it .

Doug says:
20 January 2011

I particularly agree with the ancient mariner – we must have something in common!. Although I have printed off a manual before, it uses up so much paper and the result is far too bulky. The elememtary leaflet which comes with my camera and mobile phone is far too basic and of little help.

I prefer a printed manual for all the reasons already mentioned, and would also prefer them to be in English only. This is particularly true for items such as portable electronic devices. However, I suspect as time goes on manuals will become a thing of the past. If ebooks increase in popularlty prehaps all manuals could be made readable on them?

However, it’s also important that the manuals are well written. Working through a list of instructions only to read ‘but before you do that you must………..’ is very frustating!

You raise a good point about being well written. Many manuals are written so badly that the instructions are actually incorrect. I had one manual that told me how to connect the electricity supply and in fact if I’d done what it said I would have made it dangerous. Fortunately I was able to guess / understand what it was supposed to say.

I suspect that this problem is in many cases to do with imported products having manuals which are translated from another language either by a machine or by a less than adequately qualified translator. It’s not always that though: the best, clearest, most grammatically correct and clear manual I have ever read is for my Miele Dishwasher – their translation to English is impeccable.

In many ways this point, raised by jonas131415, is more important than whether manuals stay paper based or go electronic: if they are badly written to start with they are useless in whatever format.

June says:
25 January 2011

I find it really irritating to have only a CD manual. I like to read a manual with the gadget in front of me, and in the case of something such as a camera, take it on trips so I can consult it at need or learn about other functions. I haven’t got a laptop and I can’t carry a desktop in my rucksack – and where would I plug it in?

Richard says:
25 January 2011

Definitely prefer the printed manual – and its availability has, on occasions, helped to determine whaih product I bought.

yes yes and yes. I’m comfortable with technology, however I still prefer a printed manual, of the proper size that I can read – not micro fonts that you sometimes get when I need to print myself. At least give us the option to buy a manual!

Technology companies do need to think about not providing a manual – it will mean people get less out of their device, use fewer features, give poorer ratings to the product. Give us a manual and we will rate your product higher, and buy more and recommend more of it!

The_Engineer says:
25 January 2011

Despite being an engineer who likes to take things apart to see how they work (metaphorically and physically as appropriate) I think well written manuals are important to get the best out of complicated things. Its the none obvious things that make a difference between barely adequate usage and great performance. If they cannot put something useful in the box, manufacturers could at least provide something down loadable in the language of my choice and focused on the thing (software, hardware whatever) that I have bought and paid them for. I particularly loath the quick start guides written in 14 languages; loads of useless paper.

Rodney Tibbs says:
25 January 2011

I not only think a proper printed manual essential for modern electronic products but it is vital that the thing is written in English and understandable.

The vast majority of manuals these days are a complete joke clouded by an absolute fog of jargon. Often they are interspersed with warning panels obviously placed there on legal advice in an effort to avoid future litigation.

Overall the quality of modern manuals is appalling and an insult to anyone buying the product. Is it asking too much of say the Japanese or Chinese to get an English speaker to run their eye through the script before it is offered to the long suffering public?

John says:
25 January 2011

Manuals in multiple languages and covering a number of models can be confusing whether on CD or printed. I have one paper manual with 120 pages of which 5 are in English. To save resources I think a multiple language/model version instructions are better on CD and then the user can print the few pages required if required in his/her language. However it should NOT be necessary to connect to the Internet to get the latest/full version – partially as the links don’t always work!

Mr C N Hambidge says:
25 January 2011

I am totally opposed to the absence of paper manuals for certain equipments. In very many cases the relevant equipment is very expensive, and I believe it is a cheek for manufacturers to omit the printed manual “to save costs”. It does save their costs but adds to the consumers costs and will involve more A4 pages than the booklet will have had and smaller pages in most cases.

Sybilmari says:
25 January 2011

I always need instructions for cameras. One person’s intuition is another person’s confusion.
Perhaps a small separate ‘reader screen’ which would be plugggable into the camera itself when needed and all the instructions available to follow whilst actually using the camera would be good!
For my computer – well – I have to have someone on the other end of a telephone to take me through each situation step by step. Once done it is clear but until then no number of manuals or CDs helps. I think some people learn by doing, some by reading or listening and some by guessing – but we don’t all learn to use a gadget in the same way. Personally I need a teacher when I get a complicated piece of technology. Actually I would prefer less complicated technology :O)

Bechet says:
25 January 2011

I prefer a printed manual since I can carry it around with me ~ until I get used to a camera I sometimes need to check on an odd detail which I haven’t foreseen before I leave home. Both approaches have advantages ~ the index on a cd is usually responsive which helps find the required procedure more quickly. My old Lumix FZ20 came with both but that was 5 years ago and these days even Panasonic Lumix provide the minimum “Quick Start” guidance on paper with the full version on cd or online.

Ivan says:
25 January 2011

No printed manual means a hassle for most users. You can’t browse a CD to find out at a glance what you need to know at that moment. Even worse, if the manual is only available via online download. As to the multi-lingual printed manuals, I do not mind them, but it should not be beyond the capabilities of a manufacturer to supply the manual just in a respective language with the product sent to a particular market. This was used to be the practice in the olden times…