When I spend hundreds or thousands of dollars for computers, software, and other complex electronic gear today, I expect to have a complete instruction manual packed along with it. For instance, the first desktop computer I bought in the ‘70s came with two hardcover, 3-ring bound manuals that were remarkably complete. One described the Operating System, and the other was a Basic software handbook. They were clearly written in modern, acceptable English grammar and made sense. The first procedural step was described first; the second step next, and so on. I could actually read the manuals and understand how to navigate the software and use the computer hardware. What happened to these instruction manuals? The most recent computer I purchased had only one sheet of paper that contained a few pictures for connecting the hardware. Incredible; no book!

Now, when I need to know more about my new computer, I have two choices: I can go online and download an instruction manual or something similar, or I can go to Borders Book Store and buy a book written by a dude who had nothing to do with designing or manufacturing the product. After having said that, I admit, in some cases, the author had worked for the company at one time, or was commissioned to write a manual by interviewing someone at the company.

So, look at the first case: Go online. What if I cannot get online in the first place because I don’t have a manual to tell me how to go online to get the manual online? Stupid? No, it happens. Moreover, frequently when I do download the manual, it is so confusing, I cannot understand it. It appears to be written by someone whose native language is not English – it’s a translation from something unknown! And a lot of information and data are lost in the translation. What is worse, step two comes before step one, and so on! Look at case number two: Buy a book at Borders. Many of these books are incomplete, or do not discuss the area where I need to have detailed information. And others are prohibitively expensive! Many are written for “Idiots” and “Dummies.” Sorry, I am not one of these. Moreover, if I bought an HP-9000 laptop, what are the chances that a book was written about that particular model? Zilch! Compare that to a camera. I can buy a Nikon D40 that comes with a very comprehensive manual. And if I want another book to supplement it, I can buy a book written by an expert who actually uses the camera.

The thing that precipitated this rant is an “Air Card Module” that I recently purchased. It came with a very small manual that seemed to cover the device well enough to get me on the Internet and receive e-mail. But, after I energized the module, it never operated the same way twice. Sometimes it worked plugged into the computer and other times it would work only when unplugged! Reading either the paper manual or the online manual never helped me. Today, it does not work at all. And the green power light just turned yellow! What does that mean? It is not in the book. Where do I go for help? Should I call customer service and talk to a foreigner whose language or accent I cannot understand, or should I go back to the local service center and talk to a salesperson who knows less about it than I do, because he cannot afford to own one himself? No, I will return the module and get my money back. What would you do?

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Comment by John R. Gyorki on November 12, 2010 at 6:28am
Thanks, People. I would welcome CDs instead of paper books, even though they cannot really compete with "pages in hand." CDs are cumbersome to navigate and so are Web sites. But I don't see CDs very often. And in my engineering career, I have written some of those automotive manuals you mention. BTW: from personal experience working with some of the hardware and software that is "explained" in Wikipedia, I have found gross misinformation. For example, I read something in Wikipedia about a system that I designed and it was incorrect. I don't know who provided the information, but it certainly was not me. Finally, I apologize to those who speak English with an accent that I can't understand. It's my fault that I can't understand them. I don't want to offend anyone. I should make the effort to learn their native language so I can confuse them with my accent.
Comment by Jim Finkel on October 27, 2010 at 12:23pm
Thus it was ever so. While working for a CAD magazine in the mid 80s I received an add-in card for an IBM-PC XT. What I had was an IBM-PC AT. The accompanying documentation did not account for the minor changes in the back-plane, so the card did not fit. When I called the tech support group I was assured that the card fit. I had support relay one question to the developers, "Should I use a 2 or a 4 lb. sledgehammer to insert the card?" The card cost as much as the computer. Miraculously, within a few days I received a card that fit perfectly. You just have to learn how to ask nicely.
Comment by Robert Oppenheimer on October 27, 2010 at 7:32am
I got a refurbished IBM/Lenovo laptop that came with virtually nothing. The only documentation I could find was solely online and could not be downloaded. Big help, like you wrote, when something's broken and can't get online... I've bought several machines over the years and I feel lucky if there is a PDF of the user guide and service manual included. Some now don't even come with restore discs. A partition on the primary hard drive has the recovery files and there is very little information on how to use this. Not trusting this, I made a backup of a new HP Win7 machine and it took 7 DVD5 discs!
Comment by Munteanu Laurentiu Marius on October 26, 2010 at 1:02pm
You shall be happy with the english manuals. If you would get to read a lot of manuals in Romanian, you would. For myself, I allways go for the english version of the manuals (whenever more languages are available), because the version in my native language are closer to a joke.
P.S. Sorry for my english...
Comment by Mike Nelson on October 26, 2010 at 11:27am
Companies won't change how they lay out such information unless and until they acknowledge their competitive disadvantage. Once they are outdone by, and lose marketshare to a competitor delivering better service / documentation, they will change their ways, or stand aside for other competitors to pass them on their way to the top.
Comment by Geoff Daly on October 26, 2010 at 10:05am
John, you are so right along with Kaushai...customer service and help desks are useless, look at why DELL has returned to the US (but still having troubles). Anyway I have shares in HP and have spoken with there marketing people about documentation, op manuals etc and got the following; TOO COSTLY to do today and is all outsourced, but is checked before given out!. When questioned about the language used not being clear as it seems always written in GEEK SPEAK, told SORRY this is CORPORATE POLICY form above...read bean counters cutting costs. THey then suggested I write to the President of HP which I did and never got an acknowledgement.... was Ms Fiorino back then, the new guy is no better even after Mark Hurd's demise.
Seems the user/customer has no place to question other than not buy a product!
Even our large HP server was deficient and we had to hound the supplier/reseller for a full set of manuals..... was not available for 8 weeks after being installed. Could not even get the op manual on a CD set....but all the server software etc was..

Seems we are all supposed to know everything and if not then waste time calling customer support or tech service trying to get an answer. No wonder the industry is going to pot and its not just computers and peripherals..... just make a good comprhensive CD as the equipment is being designed and functioned.... AutoCAD systems have that capability for such additions ... look at Solidworks, AutoDesk and ProE systems documentation subsections!
Comment by Mike Nelson on October 26, 2010 at 9:35am
Know your product before you buy it. If, before the sale, you haven't asked to see the manual, or the phone contacts or website or other sources for information, you are leaving it to chance that you won't be happy with them when needed.
Comment by Jack DePasquale on October 26, 2010 at 9:33am
I agree, also helpful are customer support chat lines.
Comment by Kaushal Shah on October 26, 2010 at 9:30am
There are two parts to your rant and both are valid. First, the manual, can be addressed by providing a detail manual on CD which can be inserted in to a computer (will not require Internet access) and you will have same quality of documentation that was provided with original PCs in early '80s. We do provide this to our customers in all cases where the product cost is couple of hundred dollars or a couple of thousands. Adding manuals which can be searched and indexed on a CD does not add cost! It is respecting the time of the users who will setup and integrate hardware. Now on the second part, your air card, if you are having any problem, the best solution I found is to walk in to the store you purchased it from and let them address it. I found that their support line is different than one setup for general public and issues can be resolved much quicker than your calling into their customer support. I learned this hardware while traveling with my air card.
Comment by Jack DePasquale on October 26, 2010 at 9:24am
You dont need a printed manual they have these things called cd's that can hold a lot of information,then the trees will be safe! and i will still have some kind of instructions.

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