The Joy of … Reading the Manual?

Naturally, I encourage people to read the manual; the more demand for manuals, the more demand for people who create them.

I try to practice what I preach. Reading the manual is a competitive advantage. Expose yourself to all the features of a new tool and you’re halfway to being a guru. It does my heart good to see my kids reading the manuals (which can be surprisingly complex) that come with their video games, and then buying after-market guides and looking for even more tips on the Web.

So manuals can be a source of information and, for some, employment. But… a source of happiness? Writing for the Huffington Post, Gretchen Rubin suggested some emotional and spiritual benefits:

I’m often frustrated by devices, and I have to go to great efforts not to let my irritation infect my mood. But … a big part of the problem is that I never take the time to read the manual! We recently had to replace our dishwasher, and I feel frustrated by its obscure buttons–but why haven’t I taken the time to read the directions? From now on, when I get a new gizmo of any kind, I’m going to push myself to read the instructions carefully. Why should I expect to operate something without learning anything about it?

But “reading the instruction manual” is also good advice on a metaphorical level. One of my happiness-project resolutions is to “Ask for help,” and I’m always struck by the fact that 1) I find this surprisingly difficult to do and 2) whenever I do ask for help, it’s hugely beneficial. Turns out that getting instructions makes things easier!

Rubin is not alone in her frustration. A 2008 study by Accenture found that consumer-electronics manufacturers spent over $25 billion in 2007 on assessing, repairing, repackaging, restocking and reselling returned merchandise. Faulty goods? No. Between 62-85% of returned products showed no detectable fault. The customers didn’t know how the products were supposed to work.

You can argue that the products are too complex or misleadingly advertised. You can say that some consumers are dishonest. You might even point out that a lot of the documentation out there is lousy. But clearly there’s a huge opportunity in that field to reduce business costs and increase customer satisfaction. I’m all in favor of making my readers happy!

Plain (English) Language

[Originally posted 1/15/2009 in the previous version of my blog–sfj]

Every editor and style guide I’ve ever worked with has warned me to avoid using Latinates (such as “e.g.”) in technical writing. Several reasons are given, including that today’s readers may well not know what they mean. Better is plain-spoken English, in which an equivalent team can always be found. I didn’t bemoan the general decline of literacy; I just did as I was instructed. I can’t say I’ve ever regretted doing so.

I was interested to see this recent article on the BBC News Web site about British town councils making the same decision:

A number of local councils in Britain have banned their staff from using Latin words, because they say they might confuse people.

Several local authorities have ruled that phrases like “vice versa”, “pro rata”, and even “via” should not be used, in speech or in writing.

But the ban has prompted anger among some Latin scholars.

Professor Mary Beard of Cambridge University said it was the linguistic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.

Some local councils say using Latin is elitist and discriminatory, because some people might not understand it – particularly if English is not their first language.

Bournemouth Council is among those which have discouraged Latin. It has drawn up a list of 18 Latin phrases which its staff are advised not to use, either verbally or in official correspondence.

That sounds reasonable to me, and it doesn’t hinder my technical writing style. By the way, for more information about the Plain English Campaign, click here.

Some poor readers just can’t help themselves

[Originally posted 1/2/2009 in the previous version of my blog–sfj]

A study by the University of Oxford has identified a genetic link to poor reading skills:

A common genetic variant may be partly to blame for poor reading ability, research suggests.

The variant, carried by more than one in seven people, has already been associated with dyslexia.
Tests by the University of Oxford found people carrying the key sequence tended to perform worse than average in tests of their reading ability.
But the study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found no impact on general intelligence.

We care about the reading skills of our audience, and are often counseled to write at the eighth-grade level as measured by readability indexes. But it may be that a significant portion of our audience will still struggle to read what we write.

I suggest that we keep in mind that there’s more than one way to communicate, and more than one channel to do it. If you can get your point across with an illustration, do it! I don’t mean instead of text, but in addition to text.