Manual madness! Roger Jackson proposes improvements to the currently poor state of some manufacturers' equipment manuals.
Okay, it's happened once too often. Now I'm mad! I have yet another incomprehensible owner's manual in front of me, although in a few seconds I fear it is going to be slung out of a very high window!
If there were a Top 10 Worst Manual Chart, who would win? Stiff competition indeed! Would it be Yamaha with their classic 'Mysteries Of The DX7', or Roland's '1001 Things You'll Never Know About The D50', or the swashbuckling Akai thriller 'The S900, And The Best Of Luck Mate!'?
I do appreciate the difficulty in writing instruction manuals, especially for music software programs, as there are often whole new concepts to be grasped - like how a pattern of music is to be displayed if not in musical notation, or how MIDI controller data is to be represented and edited, or how much quantisation is to be applied to your screen displays to make them legible but reasonably accurate. And just try explaining polyphonic aftertouch to your mum!
These are things which anyone new to MIDI sequencing will never even have had to consider, and now require a decision before you can start. It's not easy, but if manufacturers are clever enough to make the machines or programs in the first place, then they should be clever enough to write a good manual. And the increasing number of 'third party' manuals written by private individuals goes to show that I'm not the only one who thinks it could be done better.
I have wrestled with the oriental mysteries of Roland's literary efforts, and the apparently thorough but baffling detail of Yamaha - my DX7 manual is as thick as a telephone directory. I even survived the first draft of the Steinberg SMP24 documentation, but I think many others will share my feeling that most of what I know about my equipment has been gained through (often bitter) experience, rather than an in-depth perusal of documentation.
I have often heard sales people responding to enquiries with the comment "If only people would read the manual!". But I've heard twice as many beleaguered users saying that they don't understand the manual. This is because, all too often, you need to know quite a lot about the machine to understand the printed instructions. One manual I know is laid out in the same form as the separate modules on the instrument. At first glance this seems to be a good idea - until you need to know in which module to find a certain function.
Another thing you often need to grasp about a machine before you can use it is its own particular terminology (and manufacturers like to use their own unique terminology wherever possible!). For example, a keygroup on the Akai S900 sampler is a preset on the Emu Systems' Emax sampler, which rather resembles the concept of a performance on the Yamaha TX802 synth module - and a performance happens to be made up of a number of voices, some of which may well be factory presets. If you want to change either a voice, performance or preset, this can be done by sending... wait for it... a program change message, of course! Confusing, isn't it?
With all these potential pitfalls, it seems incredible that manufacturers seem to trust their manual writing to the first trainee who claims to have an 'O'-level in English. Don't you just love puzzling over bits of technical jargon literally translated from the original Japanese or German? Why does anyone who is clever enough to write a useful computer program imagine that a literal translation of technical terminology - much of which has been made up just for that particular machine - will be of any use to the poor aspiring user?
I assume that most manufacturers try to make their machines user-friendly. But if your first contact with the device is a manual which apparently ignores your needs, and makes you feel out of your depth, that is not a friendly introduction. Salesmen who behave like this do not thrive - so why don't companies recognise the value of the manual as ambassador for the product?
Imagine you've just spent the next three weeks' rent on a new gadget. You bring it home and everyone (especially you) is keen to see what it does. If you can set it up and get a sound out of it with one or two pages of reading, then you are going to feel good. If, however, after struggling with it for six or seven hours you can only get it to generate a 50Hz hum, and it crashes whenever you try to save, then not only do you feel a berk but you are not likely to recommend it to anyone.
As you progress along your 'learning curve', you find there are things that you can now do that you have never considered before. The best place for these to appear is in an 'Advanced User' section towards the back of the manual. It makes you feel good that you are now an advanced user of the machine, and it doesn't confuse you while you're learning. You don't want to be baffled by the details of handbrake turns while you are still trying to fathom out how to start the engine.
Here then are some simple rules which I think would make owner's manuals 100% better at a stroke:
(1) Have it written, or translated, by a native speaker. English speakers should write for English readers.
(2) Have it written by someone who hasn't had anything to do with the writing or design of the software, so that they can see it from the point of view of the user.
(3) Have an 'instant gratification' page at the front, so that users can get up and running straight away.
(4) Have an 'Advanced User' section after the basics.
(5) Include a full glossary of the terms used, and explain exactly what they mean in this particular context.
(6) Try to put everything in the manual. For example, there are often 'error messages' which appear in programs and, being written in technospeak, they are often meaningless to the user. Explain them, and you might at least prevent a few sleepless nights!
(7) Never over-estimate your readers. Many of them may be totally new to the concepts that you are dealing in, and their minds are doing their best to get a handle on them. Make it very clear, and don't worry about boring experienced users - they are very good at skipping bits!
(8) Think of the manual as an important part of the machine. The part which will eventually reside in the user's head - the essential operating system.
Each time I meet a dreadfully incomprehensible manual I start to lay plans for a hugely successful enterprise: acting as a consultant to help people write useful documentation which makes their users feel good about the product and the company. And then I stop and think: "No, someone must be doing that already." I have been thinking this for 15 years now and, despite the vastly increased need, I see no signs of improvement.
So, if someone out there has some spare time and feels that they are good at explaining things, perhaps there is a career opening worth exploring. God knows, we need you!
Opinion by Roger Jackson
Previous article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!