- 21 Aug 09, 08:21 GMT
Ever been on an online discussion forum to inquire about some technical problem you're trying to sort out? Then it's quite likely that after a while you will have received a terse message from some smart-alec, which will end with the acronym RTM, followed by a number of exclamations marks. That apparently stands for Read The Manual! - and in fact the acronym usually includes the letter "f" placed before the "m" to supply added emphasis.
Well, sorry, I'm not going to read the manual, as I explained to the makers of a charming Radio 4 programme which you can hear this morning at 1100.
"How to Write An Instruction Manual" is presented by an engineer from King's College London, Dr Mark Miodownik. He's also written this article about the man behind the Haynes Instruction Manuals, regarded by many as the works which define the art of describing in painstaking detail just how something works.
Now if you were acquiring a second-hand car 20 years ago, and were expecting to do your own maintenance, then one of these manuals would have been just the ticket. But, as I told Mark when he came to interview me for his programme, the world has moved on. The whole point of modern devices - from cars, to mobile phones, to wireless routers - is that they are designed for idiots like me who don't even know how to lift the bonnet, and wouldn't know how to proceed if they could. We want to take things out of the box, turn them on and see them leap into action without having to read anything.
There is a serious point here. These days, good product designers know that they must ensure that extraordinarily complex devices can be used by people without any kind of specialist knowledge. When I was at school - oooohh shortly after the last war - there was one computer in the science block. It was attended by what seemed like a team of engineers, feeding tickertape into it, and only physics students wearing white lab coats - I kid you not - were allowed to approach. Now, when I acquire a new laptop, I open the box, chuck out any accompanying paper, and power it up. There may be the odd on-screen instruction but that's your lot, and I often feel I can use my computer without wearing a lab coat.
And if I get sent a new mobile phone to try out, and find I actually need to open the chunky instruction manual in seven languages, I put it back in its box and return it to its makers. Good products today combine excellent technology with an intuitive user interface - and if they don't they are likely to fail.
Dr Miodownik seemed slightly crestfallen at my lack of enthusiasm for manuals. He fears that our impatience with instructions is a symptom of a throwaway society where products become obsolete within months.
I understand why an engineer might feel passionate about what are sometimes rather lovely products in themselves. On our bookshelves at home we have the Eagle Annual of the Cutaways, a collection of beautifully executed drawings from the boys' comic of the 1950s and 1960s explaining the workings of everything from a VC10 aircraft to a "do-it-yourself" petrol pump.
It may be sad that we no longer seem to have that thirst for knowledge about how things work. But I'm afraid I'm just not going to start reading the manual.
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