When the Instructions Are Wrong (Back It Goes)

I got a soundbar for my birthday, to complement our big plasma TV’s little speakers. I did my Web research on soundbars, but couldn’t decide among all the types available, so I went to an electronics store and put my fate in the hands of a salesman. He sold me a brand I hadn’t been considering, but the price was right and it sounded fine.

When he explained how to program the soundbar to work with our remote control, he casually mentioned that there was a trick to it. “I didn’t understand how to do it at first,” he said. I listened, but in the back of my mind I knew I going to read the manual, so I was confident. There were only five buttons on the unit—how hard could it be to program? I should have picked up on the “trick” as a red flag.

When I got home, I took out the impressive-looking setup instructions (50 pages, in five languages) and followed them carefully, but failed to program the soundbar. Every sound-controlling button I pushed on my remote control just increased the volume. I even swallowed my pride and asked one of my sons for help. He rolled his eyes, picked up the manual, and spent half an hour on it before finally admitting he couldn’t get it to work either. (I ain’t quite as dumb as I seem…)

I belatedly turned to the Web for help. Reviews of that product were mixed at best. The consensus was that the sound was great but people couldn’t program it. On Amazon.com and other sites, a few people offered suggestions along the lines of the salesman’s “trick,” but most simply gave the product one star and warned not to buy it. (Remember, a one-star review on Amazon.com is really a zero-star review, because you can’t award less than one.)

Eventually I got to the root of the problem: there was a step missing in the instructions! The company’s own site has an FAQ that addresses the issue. Armed with a printout of the FAQ, I was finally able to get the soundbar to behave, and I’m going to keep it.

I wonder: How long has this been going on? Five years ago, Accenture, the technology consulting firm, pegged the consumer-electronics return rate at five percent, but discovered that only five percent of those returned products were actually defective. Of the rest, one in four is buyer’s remorse. However, more than two times out of three, the product was working correctly, but the consumer didn’t realize it. Some of that was due to mismatched expectations, but mostly the consumer thought it wasn’t working right even when it was. And this is a failure of the instructions (and sometimes product design).

Now, product returns are damaging on several levels. The costs of processing, restocking, repairing, and repackaging consumer-electronics returns was nearly $14 billion in the US even then. Beyond that, the reach of social media means that a bad product review reaches far more than the 22 people Dr. Deming once said a dissatisfied customer talks to.

So what? As I said, I found the fix on the Web. Why bother documenting at all when someone else will do it for us? Well, if you expect the wisdom of the crowd to fix your mistakes, you’d be taking a big chance. They may fix it while blasting your product and hurting sales. And if you’re like me, documenting a commercial product with only a few users, there is likely no one at all bothering to post corrections to the Web. More likely they’re suffering in silence, complaining to your support line, or recommending switching vendors.

Instead, I recommend rededicating ourselves to what we always try to do: a good job. Put yourself in your user’s place and make your procedures clear, complete, and correct. Use steps appropriate to your audience level, but don’t leave any out. Verify and double check. Best of all, include troubleshooting tips (as I suggest in my blog post “Back to Square One“).

I have one more suggestion. Companies need to know the value of technical communication, consumers need good instructions, and we need jobs. Today’s companies seek our approval by asking us to like them on Facebook. Well, what better way to help than to like them and, if necessary, call their attention to poor documentation? Who knows—you might trigger a fix, or even get a job writing their documentation! I call that a win all around.

Actually, I still can’t get the mute button to work. But I have a workaround.

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I am a lifelong technical communicator, an Associate Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, and former chairman of the STC Certification Commission. I earned a BA in Physics and Astronomy, and an MS in Science Communication, from Boston University. I am married with three children and we live in my childhood home town of Westford, Massachusetts. Outside of my professional work I'm interested in vocal performance, music in general, reading, writing, astronomy, and Boston sports.

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