In 1986 I was already a veteran computer software technical writer, documenting applications with command-line interfaces on operating systems that were the grandparents, uncles, and aunts of UNIX and then Linux. (One of my colleagues wrote an entire manual for a sort utility—excuse me, the Sort. I tell you, those were heady days.) My division’s software ran on minicomputers, which were smaller than mainframes but still needed machine rooms. (A 20-megabyte removable disk drive was as big as a washing machine.) This was what the word “computer” meant to me.
And then I got my hands on a Macintosh.
I was developing a course on user interfaces, so when I heard that an executive on the top floor had a Mac, I had to see it. Not only did he give me a demo, he generously offered to let me use it at night after he left. This was five years after the debut of the IBM PC (which from a UI perspective wasn’t interesting), and two years after the memorable introduction of the Macintosh personal computer, but the hands-on experience on that Mac was still a revelation to me. The hardware was interesting enough: portable, with a mouse, diskette drive, and true WYSIWYG display matching pixel density (72 ppi) to printer point size. But I was most intrigued by the software, and above all the operating system. The graphical user interface was unlike anything I’d used before. I completely rewrote my course material, which made me something of a UI expert for years. I sold some company stock and bought a Macintosh Plus Enhanced for myself, which gave me the tools to write a trade book on word processing. And I bought a few shares of Apple at $8, which over the years has paid for every Mac I’ve owned since. Macintosh literally changed the course of my life.
While the IBM PC was first, Macintosh was the breakthrough product that introduced consumers to computers (“the computer for the rest of us”). As such, both the software and its documentation faced an incredible challenge. Apple couldn’t afford to hold the hands of millions of customers trying to learn how to use their Macs. It had to be easy to use. And was marketed as such. One of the first Mac TV ads made the point by dropping a stack of IBM PC manuals, followed by one slim book for the Mac. (That commercial was actually the Apple board’s choice for the Mac’s introduction, but Steve Jobs talked them into the brilliant “1984” ad instead.) It was surely the first time computer documentation was used to sell a product on TV. Imagine the pressure on the writer to keep that book short and sweet!
Of course, we know the product, and its slim documentation, succeeded. The Mac, along with the PC, kicked off a golden era for home computing, and a golden era for technical writers. The labor force was soon introduced to computers, which over the course of one generation went from a rarity in the workplace to a necessity. Consequently, computer skills went from exotic to a basic requirement for millions of workers in thousands of job titles. That’s where we came in. STC membership peaked at 24,000 in about 2001, just about when the curves of “I need to know” and “I already know” met. (Since then, the next generation of workers, born with computers in the home, haven’t needed as much information, and our ranks have declined. I think that was no coincidence.)
I no longer have my first Mac, but I’ve kept the user’s guide all these years. This edition is copyrighted 1986, written by (and credited to) Carol Kaehler (1942-1991). Aside from a graphics refresh, it’s similar to the original Macintosh documentation, which you can still find on the Web. I believe it was written on a Macintosh using Mac applications.
OK, so I love my Mac. But I blog about technical communication. How was the Macintosh Plus user’s guide of 1986 as a piece of technical writing? Well, I’m an experienced publications-competition judge at the chapter and Society level, so I am qualified to offer an assessment. I’m biased, but I think it was a distinguished and ground-breaking effort, much like the product it supported. I break down my assessment below, following the “user support materials” category used in the STC publications competitions.
Writing and Editing
The audience was the general consumer market. Its purpose? In 1984, and still in 1986, everyone had to be taught computer basics down to the hardware level. For example, the maintenance section began:
The first thing to know: You’ll never hurt your Macintosh by clicking in the wrong place or pressing the wrong key. Your Macintosh is no more fragile than a television set. And if you follow the few suggestions here, you and your Macintosh will be together for a long time.
The vocabulary is carefully controlled, introducing and defining many terms that now are industry standards, such as window, clipboard, and desktop, not to mention the fundamental GUI verbs such as click, drag, double-click, and scroll. The editing is superb; I don’t recall any typos or slips. The information is presented consistently.
The writing style is informal, friendly, and supportive. Here’s a sample passage:
This chapter summarizes the basic techniques you’ll use whenever you work with your Macintosh. It also describes the steps to take when you want to use the Finder to manage your documents and disks. For example, it tells you how to move a document from one disk to another, how to copy a document or an entire disk, and how to remove documents (easy!).
The writing is a model of clarity and concision, with excellent use of analogies to relate GUI icons, controls, and actions, which readers hadn’t seen, to physical activities. A fair sampling of text comes in at Grade 8 on the Flesch-Kincaid readability index, right where it should be.
The information is well organized into chapters on GUI basics, basic tasks, hardware basics, available software and hardware options, and maintenance. The scope is appropriate to a neophyte audience.
Chapter 1 introduces users to the fundamental concepts of this new interface. (Some years later, at Digital Equipment Corporation, we added a standard chapter to every application user’s guide to explain our non-standard—that is, non-Macintosh!—DECwindows GUI.) Today we assume all users have GUI knowledge, but then it was a significant challenge to explain.
The visual elements are outstanding and groundbreaking. Red is used as a second color for headings and to tie elements together, but also to signify physical motion (such as locking and unlocking a diskette) and conceptual actions such as clicking, dragging, and double-clicking. This greatly enhances the content’s meaning.
The layout and presentation is page-oriented: I would call the manual structured, in that topics are generally laid out on facing pages. Headings never start partway down a page, and illustrations sometimes flow attractively across two-page spreads. I might ding it slightly for not following the task convention of numbering steps, but then a number of procedures are only one sentence long.
The typography is highly readable, no surprise for a project overseen by type maven Steve Jobs. Details are set in gray type, which today we would consider less accessible, but the convention of marking information you don’t need to know is followed consistently.
The illustrations are a strong point, fully integrated with the text and placed freely where needed—in line, in the left margin, or flowing across pages. With the exception of one low-res drawing of a mouse, the artwork is rendered crisply. Notably, the many screen captures and fragments are free of moire patterns (a challenge given the relatively low resolution of the GUI itself). Chapter openers are full-color photos that suggest ideas for how and where to use the Mac—what today we call use cases. While photos can be tricky because they can rapidly become dated, these photos have held up well (and show diversity).
The main table of contents is well organized and correct, and each chapter begins with a mini-TOC. There is a thoughtful, seven-page index with “see also” references, a visual glossary of icons, and a ten-page illustrated glossary of terms.
The book is almost exactly the size of an iPad, printed in full color, with card-stock covers and a spiral “lay-flat” binding. It totals 192 pages (up only slightly from the original Macintosh User’s Guide) plus a reader-comment card. The print production (the only choice for the time) is of high quality; my copy remains in good shape today. Because a spiral-bound book has no spine to read, the back cover includes an innovative flap, creased just right for the page count, so you can find the book on your bookshelf.
The Bottom Line: A Work of Distinction
Even by contemporary standards, I consider the Macintosh Plus user’s guide a distinguished piece of technical communication. It successfully meets the unprecedented challenge of explaining computers to a general audience; its artwork is crisp, strong and effective; and its graphics and print production are innovative and of high quality. I’m biased, but experienced too, and I believe this would be a candidate for a Best of Show award at STC’s international level.
10 thoughts on “The Mac Plus User’s Guide, 30 Years Later”
A finely tuned ode to good tech writing and design. I’m so glad you kept this manual. Thanks for bringing it back to life so eloquently.
Sorry to hear that Carol died back in 1991. She did a great job with this manual. The whole bunch of technical writers worked on that approach, though, which we called “user friendly.”
I got to talk with most of the writers, and put their thoughts into a book that served as a style guide for a while. You describe our goals very well.
Excellent article, Steve!
Had to laugh with that photo! See how the hand model is holding the mouse. He had no idea how to use a mouse, and evidently nobody else at the photo shoot did either. Why they published it is even more perplexing.
Thanks for pointing that out! It does look odd today. The photo shows a user cleaning a mouse ball. (That was a thing.) It’s completely accurate. I may have to update my post to make that clear.
Carol Kaehler’s obituary has some interesting details about her education and how she ended up in this role at Apple.
Lois, thanks for sharing that information about Carol!
Hello, can you check if the following figure appears in the manual?
This particular figure doesn’t exist in the original 1984 Macintosh manual (and I can’t find the Macintosh Plus manual anywhere online).
Alex, I can’t lay my hands on the manual at the moment. (You should see my den!) I do not recall such an illustration at all, sorry.