My very own manual!?!?

Every once in a while, I open a product I have just bought, and feel a little nostalgic for the days of paper manuals.  I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that I can seek out instructions regardless of whether I am online.  The truth is, when a question does arise, it is second-nature to sit down and search the internet.  And, honestly, when am I offline anyways?

I do remember the days when online help wasn’t so easy to come by.  If a manual did not have an answer I needed or I didn’t understand it, I was stuck with the time-consuming tasks of doing my own research.  Other times, I would come across mistakes in the instructions or information that became outdated after a software update occurred.

So while I think I “miss” the days of paper documentation accompanying products, I don’t miss all that they represent.  I like that I can search for specific issues quickly.  I love that outdated or inaccurate information is usually wiped away.  And, it’s super convenient that customer support is often a click away, instead of requiring a call to the customer support line.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still print out a lot of the instructions that I look up in customizable searches.  I do this because, in many cases, it is easier for me to follow directions on paper.  (It is an annoying personality quirk of mine that costs me untold amounts of money buying ink and paper.)  I also find that I often look up the same issue repeatedly.  I have certain applications that I use on a regular basis.  There is usually a function or two that I only use occasionally, so I find that when that rare occasion comes up, I need a refresher on how to do it.

Along with my printing habit, I like to cut and paste chunks of helpful or interesting information from help sections, and put them into a Microsoft document for future reference.  I bookmark a lot of pages too.  There is a problem though.  This inconsistent data collection makes it very difficult to access the information.  I have to search my saved documents which leaves me trying to remember if I saved it on my laptop or desktop?  Hard drive or memory drive?  If I bookmarked it then I have to search through all the bookmark and Chrome and Internet Explorer.  This is assuming that I actually recall saving it in the first place.  Often I go look up the same information again, only to notice I already had it, when I go to save it.  Sigh.

The idea of being able to customize my own instructional text on a site is an incredibly exciting concept (Spilka, 2010, p.206)!  I imagine all those topics that I go back to time and time again at my fingertips.  No more haphazard organization of all the information I want to retain.  No more wasted time looking for information, only to realize I already have it documented somewhere.  Just one site to go back to, the source.  Not only would all the information that I need be structured in the way that best meets my needs, but I could also add more information or remove what I no longer need.  That would be the ultimate user experience!

Until that becomes widely available, I will continue to appreciate the ways that digital media is enabling writers to provide better and more targeted content.  The use of digital media has not lead to a homogenized audience, but has instead given many new opportunities for writers to tap into the specific needs of the reader.  They no longer have to make assumptions about the reader’s needs and can instead utilize a variety of user information absorbed from observing the user directly.   In many ways, the move to greater use of online documentation, defies the image of the internet widening the distance between people.  In this instance, online media allows for a greater personal connection with the audience.

Posted on November 1, 2015, in Digital, Marketing, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Hi Rebecca, I agree that it is wonderful that many companies have put their product manuals online. I buy a lot stuff second hand, and when I do this, I often do not receive an instruction manual. (I, too, want a printed copy, as online versions have links that change from time to time). The first place that I check is the company’s website. If I cannot locate the manual in their customer support area, I will check their contact page for an email address or chat box. Depending on how desperate I am, I may contact the company through their Facebook or Twitter page.

    In the meantime, or if they reply that the company cannot help me, I will search online for instructions and maybe post my question on a separate help website.

    But it would be better if companies could put all of their instructions on their website immediately after the product has been released. This would save time for the user in finding the information that they need. (Additionally, the user can use this information to review the product before they buy it). Now, if companies are able to allow us to build our own instruction manuals, that would be great. This way the exact information that I need is right there in one place. Just like you, I will copy and paste the specific parts that I need in a new document or bookmark the page, but I soon forget where I put it when I need it the next time.

    Anyway, this chapter gave me hope that their will be technical communicator jobs available for working on user-specific issues and figuring out ways to have both digital and print manuals available for the users. As someone who depends on instructions to do something, I feel that I am able to help users with finding solutions, as I have been in their shoes, so I understand their frustration. I enjoy trying to figure out what could go wrong before it could happen, so that if the user comes across a problem, their issue can be solved immediately. I just hope that I can have direct access to the users, as I find it the easiest and quickest way to help them solve their issue and get back to work.

    • Hello!

      Your comments about wanting to write manuals that help users find solutions, reminded me of a horrible experience I had. I bought my daughter the Barbie Dream House for her birthday in April. What a nightmare! The assembly instructions were inadequate and the company website provided no help.

      I am very capable with instructions and as a single-mom it wasn’t my “first rodeo.” I am used to assembling all kinds of complicated things around the house without assistance. In frustration, I enlisted my father to come assist. Two grown-ups with over 100 years of life experience between us and neither of us could make this thing work.

      The instructions were so horrible that they should have just saved the paper and left them out. It turns out I was not alone in my frustration. YouTube is filled with the horror stories and user-made tutorials on putting this thing together. Even so, I watched the same YouTube video about twenty times and spent at least two hours just getting the elevator to finally work. At least when I was done, my daughter looked at it and said “all of my birthday wishes have come true.” It kind of made the time and frustration seem worthwhile.

      Maybe you should consider a job at Mattel. They clearly need good technical writers. 🙂

  2. Hi Rebecca!

    Despite the fact that I’m not a technical writer, I LOVED this chapter and what it discussed concerning user experience and customer service. I wish I had more opportunities in my work to sit down with students (my college’s customers) and ask them how they interact with the marketing material we create. Unfortunately, as it stands, my position has little official access to the students.

    I did take a moment just a couple weeks ago to grill a student worker on how he uses URLs in print media. Does he ever type out a redirect into a browser? It turns out that he usually googles what he is looking for regardless of whether a redirect is provided, often navigating from the home page to try and find what he’s looking for. Though his was only a single voice in our large audience, I took his words to heart and examined how our most recent campaign functions for customers with similar browsing habits.

    As it turned out, our mobile site had no clear way to get to the advertised event’s registration page. Using this knowledge I pushed to include a better path from our mobile page.

    As for my own relationship with manuals, I find myself googling my problem. The Adobe products do have very good support pages, so I try to click on their online help before tapping the many user-run troubleshooting forums. If I find the solution to a frequent or particularly nagging problem I also print it out and put it in a binder. Sometime this is the best way to share it with my fellow designer in the department if she ever runs into the same issue.

  3. HI Rebecca!

    I love that you touched on this chapter and your experiences with instruction manuals. As I was reading this chapter I remembered the time I bought a Cannon F1 35 MM SLR and a box of lenses from a garage sale. But of course, no yellowing or crumpled instruction manual was included with my box of goodies.

    While I had a general knowledge of how to use the camera, I needed more help with certain features and needed an instruction manual to reference. Luckily, after a quick google search I was able to find a PDF of the manual on Cannon’s site. It allowed me to click through and instantly solve the problem I was having. I was amazed not only that I could find the information I needed so fast, but also at how easy the whole process was!

    Thank you technical communicators for making my life easier 🙂

    • I owe Canon a debt of gratitude for the online PDF manuals as well! While I often prefer my paper manuals, I kept finding myself away from home and struggling to get a setting right on my camera. My inability to figure it out on my own, often cost me a great photo that I’d never get a chance to recreate. Finally, in frustration, I downloaded the PDF version of my manual to both my laptop and my tablet. Usually, at least one of those–and usually both–is with me when I travel. The PDF search option also allows me to find the information I need quickly before the photo opportunity is lost. I cannot tell you how many times those PDF manuals have saved the day!

  4. Oh I so feel your pain until I found Evernote. It is a great way to save information. Instead of copying it to a Microsoft document, you put the information in Evernote. Evernote scans the content and makes it searchable. Disclaimer: I’ve moved on from Evernote and now you Microsoft OneNote, which works the same way.

    I appreciate paper documentation too. But, these days, I prefer to download it and save it to OneNote. Or, I scan it into OneNote if I can’t find it online.

    • Aaron, I had never thought of using Evernote. I have used it for miscellaneous writing on my tablet, but it didn’t occur to me to use it consolidate those type of notes. I occasionally use Google Drive so it can be accessed on any device, but it isn’t my preference. I might start using Evernote though! Thanks for the suggestion.

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