Sunday, 23 November 2008

On read rage

A correspondent writes to ask for the background to an item he heard on a radio station recently about the language of instruction manuals. He evidently tuned in half way through and heard me going on about it, but wasn't clear why.

It was in relation to a survey carried out for a UK firm called The TechGuys, who make their living by helping people who have trouble understanding the instruction leaflet or manual that comes with newly purchased equipment. The survey showed that, nationally, 67% of people say they don't get the full use out of their technical devices because the manual is too difficult to understand. Over a third, 34%, avoid the manual altogether, preferring trial and error instead. A remarkable 20% admit to throwing the manual across the room. And an even more remarkable 8% have taken their frustration out on the piece of equipment they were trying to set up. This is 'read rage', indeed.

Manuals for mobile phones evidently top the list, closely followed by those for cameras, washing machines, TVs, PCs, and DVD players. But it isn't just the high-tech devices, as anyone knows who has bought a piece of self-assembly furniture.

Why are the manuals so hard to understand? A mixture of nonlinguistic and linguistic reasons. Under the nonlinguistic heading we find the trend for manufacturers to create a single manual for all international markets: there is a massive booklet, but we find that only a couple of pages are in English. Similarly, there is a trend to use one manual for many different models, which makes it difficult to find the information relating to the particular model we have bought. And some manuals are these days available only online, which can be a separate problem - especially if the item you've bought is a PC which you need to get online in the first place!

Related to this is the density of the presented text. Presumably to keep these manuals as compact as possible, type-size is often small, and the information is packed together on the page. Labels in diagrams are often so tiny that they are very difficult to read. Online versions can be just as bad, with dense paragraphs and poor page navigation.

The linguistic reasons fall into two types. First there is the fact that many products are now manufactured abroad, often in the far east, where the level of English can be poor. Many firms evidently do not bother to get their translations checked by a competent English speaker (not necessarily a native speaker - competence is the criterion). I am used to seeing jocular collections of 'fractured English' as books and websites, where the grammar is wrong but the meaning is usually obvious. Instruction manuals illustrate a rather more serious side to the phenomenon, where the poor language makes it difficult or impossible to understand what is meant.

Second, there is the actual choice of words and constructions. Many manufacturers assume that the user will know all the technical terms about their product, and do not bother to explain them. Some quite clearly have not had the product to hand when writing the manual, as the name of a feature in the manual does not correspond to the name of the feature on the machine.

Sentences can be long and complex. And the discourse structure is often badly thought through. Once I tried to put a kit together. Instruction 1 said: 'Glue A to B'. I did. Instruction 2 said 'Before you glue A to B, do X.' It proved impossible, now that A and B were joined.

It's the semantic inexplicitness which apparently people find especially annoying. Presumably it is just laziness on the part of the manual writers which led to one laptop manual saying: 'The appearance of your computer may be different from those illustrated in this manuel due to variations in specifications. It may also vary in some countries or areas'. And what does this instruction mean? 'Note: CD-R, DC-RW Discs recorded with writing device can only be used when they are correctly treated'. Is the device to be used only with CDs that have been handled with care? Or is it something to do with the way the CD is 'burned'? Or something else?

Some instructions are simply semantically puzzling. What were the writers getting at when their hairdryer manual said 'Do not blow-dry when sleeping'? Or culturally puzzling. I think the most fascinating example of inappropriate instructionese unearthed by The TechGuys was this heading, found in the manual from the Russian manufacturers of a fridge-freezer on sale in the UK: 'How to kill the animal and prepare the meat before storing in the freezer'. Perhaps somebody should have told them that Surbiton is not Siberia.

26 comments:

Ismael Tohari said...

Very interesting!

Thanks a lot, DC.

I didn't understand the below part. I wonder if you could elaborate on it.

"Perhaps somebody should have told them that Surbiton is not Siberia."

Athel Cornish-Bowden said...

There were Spanish instructions for setting up an early PC that started by telling the user to insert the DOS disquette in the reader, with the result that some users tried to force two disquettes simultaneously into the machine.

DC said...

I cite Surbiton as a typical British town where I imagine the local people do not go hunting down wild animals before freezing the carcasses. (I am prepared to be corrected on this point.)

Nothing personal about Surbiton. Its alliteration appealed to me, is all.

baralbion said...

It needed saying, but I wonder if manufacturers will ever see it as a problem. By the time we’ve opened the box and tried to read the wretched manual, they’ve got our money.

The Tech Guys seems to be the service arm of PC World.

The Ridger, FCD said...

It's not just manuals. I hate it when the instructions for installing software says something like "go to the File menu and select Option X" which is not on the menu...

discoursology said...

I was involved in an instruction manual writing process recently -- could add some more points to your list: the manufacturer's do generally have the device to hand when they're writing the manual; but at the same time another department is updating the same device and changing the names/symbols/file-menu-names. Translators are usually freelance and have never seen the equipment. And most confusing of all is when different people have written each chapter and the key terms keep changing. It was a joyful experience. Says one of the 20%...

Virtual Linguist said...

The most annoying thing about manuals, I think, is that they never give the information you need. I listened to a voicemail message on my mobile phone, but didn't get all the details so wanted to listen again. I didn't save the message, so the disembodied voice on my phone told me I had no messages, but I hadn't deleted it, so I knew it was there somewhere. I couldn't find the answer to my question anywhere in the manual so rang Motorola. The guy in the call centre didn't know either!

Nigel Greenwood said...

Instructions -- including recipes -- very rarely highlight the steps which are (a) particularly important and/or (b) likely to be difficult. Consequently they often give the impression that they were written by a robot.

Janet said...

"Presumably it is just laziness on the part of the manual writers which led to one laptop manual saying: 'The appearance of your computer may be different from those illustrated in this manuel due to variations in specifications. It may also vary in some countries or areas'."

Not laziness on the part of the manual writers — more likely stinginess on the part of management in supplying the tools, money, and time to adequately document all the variations.

Most of the problems you identified are due to companies not being willing to devote adequate resources to documentation. They cram multiple models into one document to save on printing costs, and multiple languages into one document to save on complexity of packaging for different markets. Or they try to save printing costs entirely, by shunting that cost onto the consumer.

Like any other producers, technical writers have to balance quality, speed, and cost. Companies tend to see documentation as a pure cost center, rather than as something that adds to the value of the product. Until consumers begin refusing to buy poorly documented products (and returning those that they discover are such after purchase), this situation will continue.

DC said...

Very much agree with these comments. I find it remarkable that most companies don't see the potential commercial benefit of good technical writing. It would be nice to think that surveys of the kind that prompted my post would help to raise awareness, reinforcing the sort of thing that the Plain English Campaign has been doing over the years. The impression I'm getting from correspondents is that this is unlikely.

Do the same kind of complaints turn up as often in other languages, does anyone know?

Nigel Greenwood said...

Re Surbiton. I'm afraid it's often the butt of jokes based on the similarity of its name to the word "suburb" -- in fact it's often referred to as "Suburbiton". Fairly or unfairly, it's been regarded as the quintessential suburban town: a far cry, indeed, from the Siberian tundra!

Janet said...

Is the original survey report available online? I've only found news reports, in addition to your blog.

Mike Unwalla, TechScribe said...

David wrote, "Why are the manuals so hard to understand? A mixture of nonlinguistic and linguistic reasons."

Janet wrote, "Most of the problems you identified are due to companies not being willing to devote adequate resources to documentation."

I suggest that all the problems that David identified are because top management does not spend the money that is needed to produce high-quality documentation.

If top management thinks that profits can be maximised by supplying high-quality documentation, top management will find the money to produce that documentation. If top management thinks that a company’s profits will be maximised by supplying low-quality documentation, consumers will receive low-quality documentation.

Therefore, I agree fully with Janet’s conclusion, "Until consumers begin refusing to buy poorly documented products (and returning those that they discover are such after purchase), this situation will continue."

c said...

A friend purchased a chainsaw last year. I didn't ask him why; taking relevant contextual details (apparent personality, known habits...) into consideration, I assumed he wished to tame the trees in his garden into some measure of submission.

One Monday morning in a school corridor, he told me this: "On the instruction manual of my chainsaw, it says this - 'do not use this implement to cut up food'." We laughed at the shared sense of the ridiculous... but later on, a student who had heard the exchange in passing commented to me that my colleague "had his respect" for owning such a tool. "I'll not me messing with him, Miss."

DC said...

:)

DC said...

Janet: I don't know if the full results are available. I'll make an enquiry.

David Farbey said...

I have to concur with Janet and Mike. Technical writers often have great difficulty in getting the resources they need to do their jobs well. More often than not, management sees their work as an unavoidable expense that must be minimised, rather than as an integral part of the product development effort.
I am currently running my own survey on attitudes to user documentation, and I'll be publishing my results in January next year.

DC said...

Yes. I get stories like this all the time from my daughter, who works as a freelance editor on the English of corporate brochures and the like. It does seem to be at the heart of the problem.

baralbion said...

I have a new programmer for my central heating. I couldn’t work out from the instructions how to turn the heating off when it was on and on when it was off, in other words, to advance it the next stage of the cycle. I telephoned the manufacturers where a helpful lady told me to press the ‘F’ button three times. On re-reading the instructions I saw that this information was indeed there, but under the heading ‘Party Function’. Ah, of course.

DC said...

Indeed.

Vishnu said...

Can anybody suggest a user manual that is the best in the industry?

Linda Russell said...

In response to Vishnu:
If we include software Help systems in this discussion (most of which are dire and are totally un-helpful - viz. just about all Microsoft Help), the best Help I ever used came with the excellent help authoring tool ForeHelp, now sadly unavailable.

Rob said...

I think there's also a broad lack of consideration for what the audience needs to read. It's not just that the technical terms are obscure, but that there is often a lack of prioritisation of information; this seems like a failure of the imagination rather than anything else. In lots of cases it seems that you would only find the instructions clear if you were already thoroughly familiar with the product. The writers are technically minded people rather than good communicators.

Scott said...

There's really only one reason why instructions and manuals are often so hard to follow: the manufacturers do not care.

The thinking goes, once a product is sold, there's little return on spending more money to improve the experience of using that product. It's easy to see why sending millions on advertising will boost sales, but it's hard to see how spending thousands making a clear, concise manual will as well.

We need to hold manufacturer's feet to the fire. If support is available, use it. Call the toll-free number, talk to as many help people as you can, so your time is costing them. Make complaints. Return items with bad manuals or instructions. If, seemingly following the instructions causes damage, then demand a replacement or, better yet, a refund.

MAKE them care.

Anonymous said...

Some of the best instructions are written by Apple employees.

http://support.apple.com/kb/TS2802

Unfortunately most of these are online, but they are far better than the wordy (and very technical) Microsoft ones:

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/240797

Timotheos said...

Eh, who needs manuals anyway. Good ol' Kiwi ingenuity gets things working enough of the time to not pose a serious (or lifethreatening) problem. ;)

On a slightly off-topic note, isn't it annoying when your computer tells you to contact your administrator -- when you _are_ the administrator?

I'm sure everone has encountered this wonderful piece of advice that Microsoft builds into all of their Windows systems (the oh-so-user-friendly security of Windows 7 is no exception).