Nobody reads the manual?

Google nobody reads the manual and you’ll get a list of pages that range from tech writers lamenting that their efforts are wasted to tech support complaining that they get calls from users who not only don’t read but probably can’t read the manual. It’s all very negative, not toward the manual itself, but toward the reader, or more accurately, the non-reader.

Just last weekend my husband asked me to hand him the manual for our car. He wasn’t looking to cure insomnia and he didn’t start at the beginning and read straight through. What he wanted to know was what type of power steering fluid to buy and add to the car. In years past he has consulted the manual for other important information such as the correct type of coolant and the location of the serial number of our factory-installed radio.

As I watched him thumb through the pages to the desired information and then hand the manual back to me, I remembered that nobody reads the manual and wondered why we accept that as truth? And why we blame the reader?

One of the most basic tips for writers is to know (and respect) your audience. If the manual is going to be read, who will be doing the reading? What information do they want? Need?

A manual is not likely to be read cover to cover like a novel. In my experience it is usually consulted to solve a specific problem and even then only as a last, or next to last, resort. It’s safe to say that the average manual reader is already out of patience before opening the cover and searching for a table of contents or index.

If we want a manual to be read, it must be written with the end user, the reader, in mind rather than written to please an executive or a technical writer.

If we organize and write manuals in a way that makes sense to their readers, with the information readers want most easily accessible, the manual still won’t be read in the traditional sense, but it just might be used in a pinch before resorting to calling tech support.

And isn’t that really what a manual is for?