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The Amateur Amateur: The Manual -- and Why We Don’t Read It

11/06/2010

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor

I bought a DVD player yesterday. It had a manual, of course, but it also had a Quick Start guide. The Quick Start guide showed me everything I needed to know to install the unit, and I figured out everything else by playing around with the remote control for a few minutes. I didn’t bother to look at the manual until the following day, and then I only scanned the main themes to see if there was a feature I had missed.

Why is it that so many of us simply don’t read the manuals? Do we have some internal flaw, such a vitamin D deficiency, or is there something wrong with the manuals themselves? Surely we want to know how to operate our equipment properly. What mysterious force keeps us from picking up that book and reading it?

The more I thought about that perplexing conundrum the more I realized that there is no single reason for it. There is no one thing that I can point to and say, “This is it! Change X and we will forevermore read the manual as soon as we open the box!”

So, in our quest for an understanding of why we don’t read the manual, let’s start with that box. As soon as we open it we see the prized gadget that we saved up our allowance to buy, that thing we lusted after and that our parents or spouse said that we shouldn’t waste our money buying. And now we have it. We want to hold it, caress it and start playing with it right away. We tear through the packaging and wrapping and immediately plug it in and turn it on. The very last thing on our minds is that booklet sitting in the bottom of the box. We’ve waited and waited and now that we have our beloved gadget we want to use it. Put simply, we are just too impatient to read the manual first.

I think that is the primary reason the manual gets overlooked, the excitement of our new toy. Oh, we fully intend to read the manual, eventually. It’s just that right now the adrenaline is flowing and at the very least we want to see the ON indicator light up. Sometimes we do get around to looking through the manual, but often it gets forgotten until that ON indicator fails to light.

I believe that another problem is that the manuals are rarely the way we or Goldilocks would like them: Just Right. Some manuals are abysmally short. They tell us, often in horribly fractured English, to take the gadget out of the box, set it right-side-up and plug in. Gee, like we couldn’t figure that out on our own. The product registration card, on the other hand, is well-written and goes into great detail. Unfortunately, those details are all about us, not the product.

The opposite extreme, of course, is the manual that is the size of a phone book; just picking it up is painful. And whatever strength reading glasses you start with, you’re going to need stronger ones by the time you finish going through it. For that matter, your gadget may be obsolete by the time you get through one of those tedious tomes. The manufacturer often realizes this, which is why that Quick Start guide is included.

I’m not saying that manuals shouldn’t contain copious amounts of data about the products. Indeed, they should. We certainly want all of the features to be explained in detail. We’re happy that there is a troubleshooting guide (though I’ve yet to see one describe any problem that I’ve encountered). Parts lists and schematics are nice, too, for the technically-minded set. All I’m saying is that it’s a lot of stuff to go through.

Sometimes the product itself makes the manual overwhelming. Some gadgets simply have too many features. When I buy a transceiver, I’m usually only interested in a handful of features. The most complicated things that I want it to do are handle repeater splits and include a CTCSS tone. But I’d be hard pressed to find even a hand held transceiver that has less than 700 features these days, all of them controlled by just three buttons and every one of them described in excruciating detail in the manual. Reading through such a manual is all-too-reminiscent of slogging through the textbook of some subject I hated when I was in high school. Yeah, an occasional bit will be interesting, but most of it is dull, dull, dull.

Let’s suppose, though, that you have a great amount of self-discipline and you fully intend to read the manual from cover to cover before you even remove the bubble wrap from your new gadget. You are going to commit every detail of the gadget’s operation to memory and you are going to completely understand every facet of its operation before you put a single fingerprint on it. Wonderful. Let’s begin.

Page 1.

Congratulations on the purchase of your new XXX333-M(A) Self-Controlled Gizmotronic Gadget. Before using your Gadget, please take a moment to read these safety precautions.

Do not take your gadget with you when you get in the shower.

Do not place your gadget inside of a microwave oven. (Note: It is also inadvisable to place your gadget inside a conventional oven, gas or electric. Avoid toaster ovens altogether.)

There are no user-serviceable components inside your gadget, but if you do decide to open it, we strongly advise that you do not use an acetylene torch.

Do not use your gadget to prop up your vehicle while changing a tire.

Do not use gasoline, paint thinner or hydrochloric acid to clean your gadget.

Your gadget is not rated to operate in the vacuum of space.

Use only conventional 120 v ac. Do not try to power your gadget from lightning strikes or by connecting it to electric eels.

Gravel can mar the finish of your gadget.

Do not force Jell-o® through the vents of your gadget.

And so it goes, page after page of prohibitions against acts that only a blithering idiot would attempt. Of course, all of these warnings are in the manual because the federal government insists that they be present. And the federal government makes such demands precisely because, at one time or another, some blithering idiot did attempt such an act. We can thank such folk for the content of the first 20 pages of our manuals.

Perhaps the best excuse of all for not reading the manual is that it isn’t readable. In an effort to save money, some manufacturers write the manual on a CD rather than printing it. So if you wish to read the manual before operating your gadget, you’re going to have to find a computer. And if the computer isn’t conveniently located near where you wish to install your gadget, well, you’re going to have to print a copy of the manual yourself. And if it’s a sizeable manual, well…

Sigh.

I’ve often wondered about computers that come with the manual burned onto a CD, or worse, written on the computer’s hard drive. How are you supposed to read the troubleshooting guide if the computer won’t start?

Anyway, to summarize, we don’t read the manual because we’re excited by the arrival of our new gadget, because the manual barely says anything at all, because the manual is much too lengthy, because 90 percent of the manual is not applicable to what we wish to do with our gadget, because most of the manual is deadly dull, because the whole first chapter is aimed at people who, in all likelihood, can’t read anyway, and/or (pause for breath) the manual is on a CD and it’s just too inconvenient to print it out.

And, if after all that, you do always read the manual first, well, I guess someone has to be the elmer.

Editor’s note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant, Missouri. He’s been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column’s name -- “The Amateur Amateur” -- suggests the explorations of a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail.



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