Rory Cellan-Jones

Read the manual? Never!

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 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.

Haynes computer manualWell, 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Like this post, Rory, and find myself on your side! If a gadget's menu system is complicated enough for me to need instructions, I know I'm not going to like it!

  • Comment number 2.

    I think most people would go onto the vendors website before calling/emailing. Some are really good and let you use natural language to find your answer, e.g:

    However, if they are difficult to navigate then the last thing people will do is pick up a manual. Frankly, we are too busy. These are competitive times and if a vendor cant make a product easy to use and information easy to find, then they should be very apologetic when you get in touch.

  • Comment number 3.

    Some people are happy muddling through, others like to get the best out of something.

    You can leave the clock on the video recorder flashing 00:00 and still play videos. You can but a car that just gets you from A to B, or one that will work on a race track.

    It's horses for courses.

    Manuals suit some people and don't suit others. There are lots of ways to learn.

  • Comment number 4.

    This is a throwaway society.... find me a mobile phone for instance that is not designed to fail? They are designed to break down so you have to buy a new one. Manuals are useless for these devices.

    Look at wahing machines and televisions, back in the 1960's TVs would last 20 years and now with superior technology they will not last that long. A manual for your TV will not tell you how to repair shoddy build quality.

  • Comment number 5.

    I completely agree with you - instruction manuals for most consumer day-to-day items shouldn't be necessary.

    People need to actually use their BRAINS and not just say, "Oh I'm too old for this, your generation is better suited for all this" or words to that effect. Just because it's technology, they presume they can't do it and have a huge mental block where they suddenly become blubbering fools who can't even work out the most simple English.

    Why are they not embarrassed and ashamed?

    Example... If you're typing something in Word (other word processing packages are available...) and you want to *insert* a French *character*, you would click Insert > Character.

    Sometimes I think people don't realise it's all actually in English (or their native tongue), it seems like through their eyes, it's all colour-coded with random swaves and patterns, and you somehow need to be "shown how" or "learn how" to do something.... when they could just take a step back, tell themselves they're an intelligent being, and just do it with ease!

  • Comment number 6.

    If a product you purchase is complex enough to require more than a few bullet-pointed points of interest on the box to get it to work as intended, you really ought to be questioning your own ability to use it, not the ability of the manufacturer to dumb down their advanced technology to the point that the lowest common denominator can dribble and chew on it and have it still work. If you are literally finding yourself in a situation of 'more money than sense' and the reading of a manual is too much for you, I suggest spending the money on education rather than the next I-Pwn 3.0

  • Comment number 7.

    As a designer of these products its considered bad design to have a consumer product that needs you to read the manual to make it work. However, there are some cases where you need to read it and hope it can help, if you have a TV and you dont know what HDMI is then how are you going to aquire that knowledge to connect it to your spanking new hi def player? Hopefully one of the two manuals has a big diagram showing the ways you can connect it up.
    Also when you cram 40 functions into a device that has a tiny screen (digital watch like), there just comes a point when it can never be obvious that pushing button A 3 times to select super mode, then button C for super homing. You want a touch screen to show you how to do it? quickly will you change your mind when the watch with only 3 buttons is half the cost? And people often buy tech by how long the listof features is.
    We can also all testify to how useless and annoying interactive help is on something like windows, you get into trouble, try everything, then push help eventually, and it tells you the obvious, so now it not only doesnt work but its patronised you. Wouldnt you like the paper manual then to tell you exactly how to do it?
    The true crime is the intruction manual that has the obvious written in it for 1 page of tiny writing (leaving out the useful stuff) and 50 pages of legal rubbish. And an old lady who bought a mobile phone where she couldnt even work out how to turn it on, the information was in a manual...where was the manual? On a CD for cost reasons, and she didnt even own a computer. For goodness sake who would think of supply the simple set up manual for a product on a disk when its not computer related!!!!!!!

  • Comment number 8.

    It is a very big problem. In a recent survey (I think that this was before the latest version was released), Microsoft asked its users what features they wanted in the next version of Word. The vast majority of features were already there (I think it was 90%). Microsoft had an extensive help section - the modern equivalent of the manual - and still people didn't know about the features.

    So the upgrade to Word added few features but made it easier for people like you (and me) to find what we want intuitively.

    And it's a big step forward.

  • Comment number 9.

    You are missing the point - if you receive a good product but are not able to use it immediately you return it rather than put in a small amount of effort (reading the portion of the manual which is written in your native language). This is just being lazy.

    The real problem is that you have bought a product which is more complicated than you need. If you are not willing to put in the effort to learn about how the gadget works (no doubt you are talking about a needless frivolity), then don't buy it. Buy the simple one which does what you want and be happy.

    The art of good user interface design is so far from your argument from laziness that it is a real shame that you try and confuse the two in this article.

  • Comment number 10.

    I often read the manual once I have the device up and running so that I can use all of the features. For instance, computer games are relatively straight forward to use on a basic level, but to really do well and understand the full potential uses of each unit/weapon/feature you need to delve into the manual. Because the designers know full well that people will not read the manual, they include a tutorial at the start to make sure that the player fully understands what he/she is doing. Of course you can skip this but as soon as you realise that you haven't got a clue what you are doing you will revert back to the tutorial.

  • Comment number 11.

    I suppose with a car you can easily work out where 99% of the stuff you need is; it's the same in pretty much every car - turn the wheel to turn, push the right pedal to go faster. But the reason we don't need a manual is not just because it's intuitive, it's because it's so standardised that everyone knows it! It's becoming the same with computers; whatever anyone may say, every GUI I've used in the past decade is pretty much the same - point here, click there. Is that obvious to someone who has never used a computer before? Does it matter?

    In the car example, a manual's quite useful if you realise you have no idea where the spare wheel is or you need to open the bonnet. Having said that, perhaps these are examples of poor user interface - why do I have to find a bolt in my boot and unscrew it to release the spare wheel? How counter-intuitive is that?

  • Comment number 12.

    There is a clear split in what we can describe when talking about the 'manual'. On one side we have the USAGE manual, on the other we have the MAINTENANCE manual like the Haynes manuals.
    Now I'm all for a usage manual being somewhat defunct, because if the device makes it too difficult to even make use of its intended purpose without training, then theres something wrong with the design.
    Now a maintenance manual, on the other hand, is perfectly justifiable, and I would think there's something really wrong with society if its not prepared to accept real technical challenges, take on technical knowledge with aplomb and get stuck in - it definitely points to a stagnation, the nation appears very dumbed down nowadays - 'Britains got talent' and 'X-factor' spring to mind and knowledge of science and technology is downright unfashionable and un-cool!
    Fair enough, some devices are mostly un-maintainable by any home user, eg. the iPhone, or any mobile phone for instance, especially with a distinct lack of low level technical manuals, but this doesn't preclude the need to even have a basic understanding of how these things work. It turns out there is a wealth of user-discovered tech information on thousands of gadgets out there on internet forums, and there are markets where you can buy replacement parts for mobile phones, eg replacement LCD screens, and instructions to fit them yourselves.
    Who knows, we might not grow senile as age catches up on us if we exercise our minds once in a while! Plus we get the full use out of these expensive gadgets, cars included.
    ---An electronics enthusiast and IT professional.

  • Comment number 13.

    Surely it is just a matter of whether the device you require help with has the capability of displaying help on the device. If this is the case then I do not beleive it is necessary to distribute a manual. If you are not cognative enough to figure out how to switch the unit on and press the help button, then you are clearly out of your depth. As for devices without this capability then a manual is required. It may only be an ever decreasing proportion of the population that uses this manual, but it is necessary nonetheless.

  • Comment number 14.

    I think you are deliberately confusing TWO DIFFERENT THINGS !!

    Old cars didn't really need a manual to operate them - they had a very simple 'user interface' which was intuitive. No air-conditioning, no stereo, no hideously complicated sat-nav.

    The Haynes manuals were designed for maintaining them, quite a different thing from using them. Of course, our throwaway society means that old technology has no value whatsoever.

    But the environmental cost of this is huge - and that is not something you can so light-heartedly dismiss... since built-in obsolescence is killing the planet.

  • Comment number 15.

    Mighty Morfa Power Ranger wrote:
    "This is a throwaway society....
    Look at wahing machines and televisions, back in the 1960's TVs would last 20 years and now with superior technology they will not last that long."

    You get what you pay for.
    In the 1960s a TV would cost you over a months pay, these days you can buy one for less than a hundred pounds, obviously when you buy the cheap version then you're buying something made out of poor quality materials and components that has probably been put together by unskilled workers in a third world factory.

    I bought my TV over ten years ago and it still works perfectly, I paid a lot of money for it (a little over a thousand pounds in 1997) but the quality of the picture and sound are fantastic, it has all of the inputs and outputs I need to connect it to my Hi-Fi, PC and SKY box including a USB port (something many new TV's don't have).

    The moral of the story is that if you want something to last then you need to buy something good instead of going for the cheaper option that will inevitably break as soon as it's out of the box.

    I've also noticed the manual I got with this TV is far better than the ones you get on cheaper models, it has a couple of pages that give you all of the information you need to set it up and use most of its basic features but there's also a more detailed section that covers every single feature and setting for those of us who like that sort of thing.

  • Comment number 16.

    Take a look at the iphone and ipod touch. No manual is required - they are totally intuitive. That's how modern software and gadgets should be designed.

  • Comment number 17.

    So wait, you buy a product, attempt to get it working, fail miserably (enough to warrant a post on a forum for example) and then are surprised when people say "RTFM"?

    Why not RTFM *FIRST* and then avoid all the associated problems? That is why they are there in the first place! If you don't have time or patience to do that then expect the critisicm.

    I also think that making devices so "easy to use" so that people don't need to read the user manual, is another part of the dumbing down of society. Encouraging people to use something without learning how it works? It should be the other way around!

    Afterall, when it goes wrong, if you'd read the manual, you'd be in a better position to help yourself fix the problem (or at least post "I've read the manual and tried xyz as it suggested but it's not working still, any ideas").

    I suppose there's nothing wrong with open the box, turn on and it works but I personally always like to read the manual, more to see how the "advanced" features work but also the basics and make sure I've done it right.

    And yes, many comments are right, a maintenance manual and user manual are two different things. Is there a user-guide or manual somewhere on "how to compare things" because if so I think you need to read it ;)

  • Comment number 18.

    I have never read a manual in my life when it come to technology, I seem to have a knack for learning basic functions of a device within a few minutes of use.

    However I find time and time again (I work for a BlackBerry BES support company) that older people require a manual just to turn a device on.

    Must be a generation thing.

    17. At 4:41pm on 21 Aug 2009, badger_fruit wrote:

    "I also think that making devices so "easy to use" so that people don't need to read the user manual, is another part of the dumbing down of society. Encouraging people to use something without learning how it works? It should be the other way around!"


    I would agree with you here, however most people don't need to know how something works in order to use it and just aren't interested in the first place.

    If it works great, if it doesn't they'll get someone who does know how to use it to sort out the problems for them.

  • Comment number 19.

    OK, so Manuals are not the same as they were. There's not really a lot of excitement in seeing a black chip of electronic gubbins. Your new whizz-bang phone or whatever may have some similarities to your last one (last month ?), but an engineer has put some effort into making it better or different, so what's wrong with reading the flippin' manual so you can use it properly ?. Help lines would be a lot better (and cheaper?) if folks 'read the book'.

    Of course, some manuals (particularly computer-related) are a disaster: "to do this, press that", which is fine if you know what 'this' is or what it's used for.

    Yes, I know a lot depends upon what the gadget is, but we'd all get a lot further if manuals were written for people and people read them !

  • Comment number 20.

    I totally agree and also with "claire_liz" comments, though in the past when a friend or colleagues asked for assistance I would tell them to "RTFM", kids these days don't even look at the quick instructions (and I include my 10 year old grandson Dale), the gadget, phone or computer is switched on and away they go purely through experimentation, something we would not have done in the 80's & 90's

  • Comment number 21.

    Given the time you probably spend researching and choosing a technology product to buy, and then the money you pay, you should also take time to read a reasonably short manual to use your new possession effectively. When I start selling a computer operating system there's going to be a quiz built in. If you do not pass then someone will come round to take it away again.

    Actually, I often download and read manuals as part of the research.

    Although a news technology correspondent is given new toys every day for free instead of spending their own money, they too should contractually barred from writing about any product whose manual they have not digested, or had explained to them by the manufacturer. You are not doing the job. I wouldn't hire you. Instead my news service would reprint the manual, or link to the online version. It will be more informative.

  • Comment number 22.

    Quote 'When I was at school - oooohh shortly after the last war - there was one computer in the science block'
    The time scale of the author seems somewhat compressed, I worked as a maintenance engineer on one of the early British computers, the Ferranti Orion, and that was in 1963 at the Rothamsted Research
    Harpenden, a long time after the 'last war', time enough for me to serve in the RAF for about 13 years and then take a job overseas for another year. The Orion was not attended by a team of engineers but by ordinary people called 'operators'.

  • Comment number 23.

    Nowadays, people are expected to RTFM less, and google it more. Odds are that someone, somewhere has had the same problem as you and the answer is already there.

    Manuals are still very useful as a reference if you're trying to figure out what something actually DOES. A good example would be using a text-based interface such as a Unix console - not very user friendly, but pretty powerful stuff nevertheless.

    Similarly, if you're trying to set up an internet connection, you should probably read through those few lines of text which make up the installation booklet before contacting tech support - they'll only go through the same setup process anyway.

    Having said that, something like a mobile phone should be instantly usable with little-to-no training, especially functions such as sending texts and ringing people. If it's not, that's bad design.

    See, it's all about this usability vs complexity scale. Some stuff is easy to use, other stuff is complicated by design in order to make it more useful.

  • Comment number 24.

    As it's been pointed out, an operating manual is NOT the same as a maintenance manual. I do agree that operating manuals are largely useless, we all know how to use electronic gadget interfaces, or we all know how to drive cars.

    The problem is, what do we do when something goes wrong. Most of the modern day consumer products are different than the old cars. Electronic products, including software are designed as "closed boxes". If something goes wrong, we do not have the means to open the box and fine tune its components. That's why consumer products do not come with maintenance manual.

    Even the modern day cars are the same. My dad knew his way around the carburetor and its settings. We don't have carburetors anymore, the injection is electronically controlled by an ECU. How do you adjust the settings of an ECU?

    Maintenance manuals are for professionals only, and the operating manuals are somewhat pointless.

  • Comment number 25.

    I own Haynes manuals and have owned many more in the past, mainly for Motorcycles (surprise surprise). Like most of the posts I agree that these are distinct from operators manuals. Those are mainly put in these days so the manufacturer won't get sued when some idiot crashes their motorhome by assuming a cruise control is the same as an autopilot (True story)

    The haynes manual is aimed at those people whose toolkit consists of more than a hammer and a pair of molegrips, but I agree that EFI, ABS and the other electronic gismos are harder to work on that Carburettors and hydraulic brakes. You need the specialist manuals for that.

    More importantly these manuals show the purpose of each part of the mechanism, how that part interacts with others, the sheer ingenuity of the engineering and a very Zen appreciation for the whole being greater than the sum of the part.

    An understanding of the ingenuity used to deliver your service, how these mechanisms interact, the principles behind the mechanisms and the appreciation in general of How Things Work appeals to a very basic part of the human condition. Well worth the skinned knuckles.

  • Comment number 26.

    "22. At 12:08pm on 24 Aug 2009, terryfow wrote:

    Quote 'When I was at school - oooohh shortly after the last war - there was one computer in the science block'
    The time scale of the author seems somewhat compressed "

    Terry, I think Rory was employing something known is 'humour', I guess you must have had a bypass.

  • Comment number 27.

    The adage of "If in doubt, read the manual," seems entirely reasonable and logical, and I pride myself that if some feature or aspect of a product is not immediately self-evident, then I would indeed examine the instructions provided by the manufacturer.

    The denigration of manufacturers providing multi-language instruction booklets is beneath the dignity of a BBC blogger (and far from what I expect from RCJ!) We should be thankful that English is almost invariably the first listed language, so we don't have to trawl halfway through the booklet to find something which is comprehensible.

    Good design should diminish the necessity for explanatory discourses - I have recent experience of two Personal Video Recorders: one (using words on the remote control, and with context-driven on-screen menus) was wholly usable without reference to the booklet provided; the other (using stylised symbols and NO words on the remote control) offered all of the same functionality but the user has to know how to find his/her way to the relevant menu item and, without the instruction manual, the latter would have been of limited worth.

    Whilst most-used functions should not require any instruction (say, using a mobile phone to call or text), it is ONLY by reference to the instruction manual that I have uncovered some of the weird and wacky built-in features which I have actually paid for [mobile phone, computer (hardware and software), DVD recorder, microwave, etc., etc., etc.].

    Being able to read can enable us to learn; but it does require us to make use of the ability!!!

  • Comment number 28.

    I bought my wife a new kettle the other day and it came with a manual the size of a small novel!

    I took the kettle out of its box and chucked the packaging, manual and all, in the recycling bin and the wife calls out "Don't chuck the manual away, I might need it"

    I had to ask her if she was being serious, unfortunately she was - guess I will be making my own morning coffee for a while yet

  • Comment number 29.

    So you won't read the manual, but you'll ask for help on the internet, and then read the text of someone's reply, which will probably be in the manual? Seems like a very effective way to waste your own--and someone else's--time.


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