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What to do with old manuals from products you own

by Tom Johnson on Oct 8, 2013 •
categories: technical-writing

A reader recently asked,

Hi Tom,

Do you collect user guides, instruction booklets/leaflets, manuals etc that you think are a good example and use them for ideas and inspiration?

Would you say this is a good practice to keep up for a professional technical writer? As an aspiring technical writer, I believe it is useful and really helps me with ideas to convey information.

User Manuals of electronic tech gadgets: I always keep, even if I no longer have the product. Thanks.

I used to keep a box of old manuals for everything from appliances to electronics to anything I bought that came with instructions. I almost never used the old instructions except to find out a model number so that I could search online. However, that's not to say you can't get a lot of value out of these manuals while reading them.

Like last week. A friend mentioned to my wife how you can get free TV channels by simply hooking up an HD antenna. We knew this of course, but where we lived in Utah, reception was poor and the HD antennas didn't work. Now that we're in California, my wife decided to get an antenna. When I arrived home, she handed me the antenna box from Amazon and asked if I wanted to put it together or do the dishes and make dinner.

Putting together an antenna didn't look like a difficult task, so I sat down on the couch and opened up the antenna box and sized up the job. Like most assembly products, it came with a bag of various nuts and bolts, along with a manual.

a page from an antenna manual
A page from an antenna manual

Although the instructions were pretty basic, I spent a while trying to figure out what the "rubber boot" on the "matching transformer" was. Which gave rise to a few epiphanies about using help for products one assembles -- for the most part, these experiences give you a chance to be the user rather than the technical writer. Curse at the manual a few times, manhandle and fold it back on itself like kids do with their homework, throw up your hands and stomp your feet. It's your chance to be a "user."

As a user, I usually assume the product was made in a far-away foreign country where some poor soul was employed at 2 cents an hour to write instructions, maybe on a typewriter -- not by someone just like me with a masters degree toiling away on a Mac computer in an office cube.

As a user who is also a technical writer, I like to think I have special insight about using instructions -- an insight that my wife (who is not a technical writer) might not have.

For example, my wife has an absolute trust in the accuracy of the help. Her first move is to follow the instructions perfectly, and when something doesn't quite seem right, she thinks the product itself might be defective or missing a part. Her faith in a product's instructions rivals that of the most devout religious worshipper. If the instructions are wrong, her world fragments and crumbles into chaos.

Being a technical writer has taught me to doubt the accuracy of the instructions. I know the poor guy who wrote the manual was probably edged out of key meetings, trying to figure things out on his own. He probably missed a step or two. No doubt he had to hit print before he had sufficient time to test and polish the information. As such, I feel free to improvise on the steps, and I don't take anything I read in the manual too seriously.

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Invariably, reading these guides almost always starts out by congratulating me on buying the product. I wrote about this cliché before (see Five Ways to Avoid the "Congratulations Cliché). But now I see the real purpose behind this opening. What the tech writer is really saying is, "Thank you for buying the product, for without your support I wouldn't have a job." It is a code that only the brotherhood and sisterhood of tech writers understands. You see, this is the kind of insight I have access to. Thank you, thank you for employing me, it says.

I wish people who create product assembly instructions used more humor in the guides, if only to offset my general poor attitude in having to assemble something. I once assembled a couple of bunk beds from IKEA that came with such a large bag of screws, I swear they must have used shovels getting the screws in the bags.

A light joke at the start of the guide might help. How about, "Please pick up and hold the hefty bag of screws in your hand. Now your first thought might be, 'Holy hell that's a lot of screws!' We know, we know, but relax, it'll all be over in about an hour (or 2 or 3 or 4 hours) -- that is, if you're really handy! Just kidding -- that's what the "manual" is for. But really, keep track of the screws. You will need every single one.:)"

It's easy to joke now, because I'm not trying to put anything together. So I guess humor might be more appropriate at the end of the manual, when you assume the user completed the task. But still, lighten up assembly-tech-writer people. This is why comic book styles in military guides were so popular -- because in a crappy situation, when you're stuck in assembly hell or war (or both), you need something to lighten the mood. You need someone who isn't so serious and white-knuckled as you.

I want to say that I love immersing myself in a manual as a user, and yes, keep these instruction booklets for the learning they provide. Circle the techniques that work well. Annotate the margins like you would an assigned novel in college. Take note of the styles, and whether the writer joins imperative clauses with a comma followed by a coordinating conjunction or just skips the coordinating conjunction. I want to recommend this, sure, but in reality, using someone else's instructions is usually an uncomfortable experience that I want to exit as soon as possible.

When you're reading these manuals, what you really should note are your feelings as a user. Write a journal entry in your diary like, "Today, I wanted to strangle the person who designed this manual. I have no idea what a 'matching transformer' is and shouldn't be expected to know what this is without a picture and subtitle in the front of the guide."

And then go to work and tape your diary entries on your cube wall. You might find these letters to the unknown technical writers somewhat comforting or creepy, depending on their interpretation. They are, of course, letters to you. Because we are one. We are all part of a large being best described as "the person who writes the manual."

And while that is a somewhat depressing fact -- to be included in the same category as the guy who barely speaks English but somehow has a job creating instructions for products I buy -- it might also be comforting when the flip side occurs. When your letter does not begin, "I wanted to strangle…" but rather, "It felt good to be able to put this together." Or, "When I first saw the 3 pound bag of screws, my heart nearly stopped. But somehow, you got me through it. Now my kids have bunk beds to sleep in, and the screwed-together frames are still miraculously holding up."

Those latter kind of letters are probably the ones we never get to read, but they exist. Pin them up right there on your cube wall.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer / API doc specialist based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.