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Document This!

For days, I listened to my husband, Gary Anthes, complain about the difficulties in setting up his new computer. And for days, I said, this needed to be posted in my blog. So, at my request, Gary (who is a senior editor at Computer World), wrote up his tale. Here it is:

People are always kvetching about their personal computers, and for good reason. With the possible exception of Apple's Mac, they are a disgrace, by far the most problematic, frustrating, baffling consumer products on the planet. Maybe off-planet as well.

But while people are apt to bash Microsoft for their woes -- indeed, with some justification -- there is a less-often-cited villain. I'm talking about documentation -- manuals, diagrams, guides and so on. There are only four kinds of computer documentation in my experience -- non-existent, incomplete, poor and opaque.

I recently bought a high-end ($1,800) Dell desktop PC. I looked forward to reading the owner's manual, knowing that even though I'm pretty tech-savvy (I've used PCs daily for 20 years) I wouldn't be able to figure it all out by intuition alone. I was pleasantly surprised to find in the box with the PC a reasonably hefty (90 pages) manual titled, "Dell Desktop Computers -- Product Information Guide." So far, so good.

The first 29 pages consisted of such topics as terms and conditions of sale, warranties and returns, export regulations, safety instructions, environmental and ergonomic considerations, recycling and other such subjects. Then came the same in French, Spanish and some other language, possibly Italian. End of manual.

From this "guide" I learned not to use my PC in a wet environment; I learned that if I had a dispute with Dell it would be settled by binding arbitration; and I learned how to sit in front of the PC so as to avoid certain painful ailments (which I presumably would have had to take to binding arbitration.) But I didn't learn the two things I really wanted to know -- how to configure and use the security features I had paid extra for, or how to use the second internal hard disk I had ordered with my PC.

To be fair, the PC did ship with an "online" user manual, the kind that makes you download Adobe Reader if you want to actually use it. This manual did offer some useful information but was not comprehensive enough to help with my questions about the security and disk options on my PC.

Separately, I bought a Maxtor external disk drive to back up my PC with. It came with a "user's guide," but user-friendly it is not. For example, Power Management is not listed in the index under P, as you might expect, but under U - "Using Power Management." Partitioning the drive is not listed as "Drive, Partitioning" or as "Partitioning Your Drive," but under H - "How do I partition my drive?" Alas, there was no entry called, "How do I use this user's guide?"

There are several possible reasons that documentation for computer hardware and software is so deplorable, despite the fact that these products need it so badly. My cynical view is that product developers have some modest sum in their budget for documentation, but after they pay the lawyers for 29 pages of boilerplate, and then pay the language translators to globalize the rules about binding arbitration and how to sit, there's no money left for real content.

Another possible explanation is that product designers and developers hate to do documentation. There is no fun or challenge or status in writing manuals. (I know -- I used to be a programmer and never documented my software.)

But of course the real reason is consumers rarely complain about poor documentation, and they virtually never base a purchase choice on it. Manufacturers will shape up when consumers demand it, but I'm not holding my breath.

Oh, I guess I could just call Dell Tech Support and ask them my questions. That would be quick and easy, wouldn't it?

By  |  July 17, 2006; 7:00 AM ET Customer Service
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There's another reason why company user guides are so terrible; many of them outsource the documentation to foreign companies, and you get what you pay for. Also, there are private companies that now offer 'tech support' for setting up and troubleshooting computers, no doubt because the computer companies themselves are so bad at helping the consumers. I refuse to purchase Dell products because of their terrible reputation in assisting consumers in dealing with computer problems.

Posted by: John | July 17, 2006 7:51 AM

Back in the 80s, manuals were fat and compendious, but the instructions were so arcane that only the tech writers could understand them. Now they are only written by lawyers for protection against other lawyers.There is no middle ground. We will always be required to fumble our way to an occasional victory over the machine, or , more likely, to pay too much for machines we will never be able to use to their (or our) full potential.

Posted by: Just a Lurker | July 17, 2006 7:54 AM

The person who can produce a PC and/or write PC programs-his time is so valuable that they are rarely used to write manuals and/or help files. These are written by others who did not participate in the production cycle. They are lucky if they have input from the above person.
Help files in particular are ridiculous compilations of dubious value. One major OS system that advertised multi-tasking-did not have a listing for that in the manual provided!
On-line manuals or help files have become a way for manufacturers to "get out of" providing a real manual. While this might save a tree; it provides an "escape mechanism" for the people who have to produce them. One major corporations manual on a programming language was ultimately unuseable; even though it provided a definition of each element of the language; it provided no instructions on how to actually write a program in it!
It is possible to define all of the elements of a system; without actually providing any usefull information that can be correlated together.

Posted by: both sides | July 17, 2006 8:49 AM

I've written documentation, and I'm an engineer. A couple of facts:
1) Typically, the salesmen and marketeers try to insulate the engineers from the customer - therefore, we have no idea what the real audience is, and have a hard time couching the documentation in terms that they are comfortable with.
2) We never have enough time to do the documentations. When the last chip is in place, it's "Ship! Ship! Ship!". Short shrift is also paid to testing, which is why version X.0 of anything is always full of bugs.
3) Many engineers & software developers have a superiority complex about the "dumb users", and can't be bothered to fully explain everything. On the flip side, we get plenty of ammunition for this because a lot of computer users can't, or won't, express themselves clearly and logically when they ask a question or report a problem. "The thing that used to work gives me an error now" is what we see, more often than not. If the average user looked at cars they way they looked at computers, then the broken left-turn green arrow traffic light would be reported as a busted turn signal...

Posted by: John | July 17, 2006 8:52 AM

I have been working with computers for more than 30 years now, and think Dell has some of the best supost documents. Whwen I added memory chips or hard drives, it was just a matter of following the steps and looking at the pictures. However, I have looked for many topics that are quite obvious (to me) and never found them. It is best to call. If I could write one rule for computer documentation it would be "Every command in the software must have a section in the index and material in the manual." If there is a command to "extract" there should be an index entry that is "extract" and enough text to let someone know when to extract and why they would do so. That would fix most of the problems I have had.

By the by, Dell has also had some of the best people to talk to on the telephone. Some know what is on every help screen as it comes up and what to do in every event. Not since Word Perfect have I had such good help.

Posted by: Gary Masters | July 17, 2006 9:21 AM

Part of the problem comes from software companies not willing to pay for usability professionals.

I design usability and accessibility for computer programs. And one of the things I aggressively pursue is being allowed to tackle page instructions and error messages (the on-screen documentation).

Usually, this is about a month or so before I get laid off because of budgetary cuts....because what I do isn't considered as important as being a software developer.

Basically, when someone like me isn't on a project team, documentation usually gets left to developers or project managers and the like. And I've found that they frequently exhibit the "dumb user" behaviour talked about above. And this results in horrible or non-existent documentation.

The fact is, we're all dumb users at one point in our lives. Even the smart people. Because it's not about being dumb, it's about software and computers not being intuitive to everyone (but some of these "dumb" people are absolutely brilliant at their non-technical jobs).

Yes, there are some painfully hideous technical support stories out there (my mantra is "make something idiot proof and someone designs a better idiot"). But the majority of people out there could generally work through a simple problem by themselves if the software was designed to be used by the non-technically inclined, or if a clear manual was provided.

So computer software (and hardware) companies: Hire professionals who focus on translating technospeak to English. These would be usability professionals and/or technical writers. Beyond it's "hip" factor, there's a reason Apple has survived this long - it's because their stuff is intuitive and easy to use.'s not just for breakfast anymore ;)

Posted by: Chasmosaur | July 17, 2006 9:44 AM

Why kill trees to get the same documentation that you find on the computer in electronic form?

Sure, we're all used to the book form but time for us to change. So much more (like interactive diagrams) can be done electronically versus paper.

However, sometimes you have to print a few pages before doing the work (like adding memory) since you have to turn the computer off and can't read online instructions with the computer off. For those few times in people's lives when they need that, print the pages needed.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 17, 2006 10:01 AM

Online documentation makes it much easier to provide an up to date version of the document. A dead-tree version can't be updated dynamically.

Software developers are the worst people possible to write product documentation. They've designed the product, so they know what it's supposed to do. Unfortunately, smaller shops can't always afford a separate technical writer (it's a skill--even being a good writer doesn't mean that you write good documentation) and the product gets documented on the fly. Larger organizations like Microsoft have the usability people and technical writers, but these people are not always very technically savvy--especially for complex products--and may not always understand the needs of their audience. (And don't get me started on documentation "templates" that constrain the usefulness of the documentation...)

Posted by: Geek with good English skills | July 17, 2006 10:25 AM

Let's be frank here...

"Gary, a senior editor at Computer World," is a naive old-school computer user who hasn't come to grips with how the computer industry works in the 00s.

Gary, I promise you that most of the information you require is out there. The notes for the security application are right on your hard drive... Would you like a tour of how to use the Windows explorer to navigate through the hierarchy of folders?

And I hate to say, but it does no good to bemoan all the legalese and dumbed-down "don't get the computer wet" documentation. Have you read ANY manual before? don't use this TV while you are taking a bath...don't fly this kite in a lightening storm...don't talk on your phone without a hands free headset while you are driving...

There are business reasons for everything. Sometimes the documentation gets short-changed, sometimes the application gets short-changed. If this is your first consumer experience were you weren't 100% satisfied, then you've been living an extremely sheltered existence.

Posted by: commahater | July 17, 2006 10:46 AM

Oh, trust me, Gary, I have complained mightily about the lack of documentation! And I can't be the only one. I bought a Compaq notebook last year and was astounded to see that there was not one page of instructions on how to use it. All my screaming to HP/Compaq and CompUSA was in vain. I am relatively new to the world of computers, but I have had two different desktop computers from Dell. I am a fairly happy customer of Dell. If nothing else, I can build in the features and specs I want, not what is on the shelf at most retailers.

Posted by: frustrated dumb user | July 17, 2006 11:05 AM

I agree with John, if you want good documentation, be able to clearly articulate the problem you are having.

What OS are you running (version and patch level, please!)
What applications do you have installed
What are the settings for your Internet connection (firewall, connection speed, etc)
What are you trying to do
Step-by-step: I-opened-this-application-and-clicked-on-this-button-and-entered-this-text-and-pressed-the-enter-key-and-received-this-error-message. "It doesn't work" is not descriptive.

When I was a software tester, and later as a software developer, we would receive complaints from the feild, and it took longer to figure out what the problem was than to fix it, because we spent most of our time asking the questions above REPEATEDLY until we got all of the answers. About a third of the tme, it was a legitimate bug, but the rest of the problems were conflicts from unauthorized applications, incorrect proxy settings, unsupported browers, and the host of other non-application issues.

Also, I think Gary is one of maybe 10 people to ever read the manual!

Posted by: document-schmocument | July 17, 2006 11:17 AM

Usability is the key to good documentation (and even before that - software and hardware design). I recently installed a new Canon all-in-one printer (Pixma MP 800). I was able to install and use it within minutes because Canon took the time to have a usability expert think about the printer packaging.

When I opened up the box there was a massive (size A2?) paper sitting on top that said "Read Me First." This one sheet of paper contained all the instructions (with pictures) I needed to set up the printer, install the ink, print a test copy and install the software.

PCs and peripherals do not have to be hard to install and troubleshoot. But they will continue to be unless companies realize they need to invest in usability at all stages of product design and development and packaging.

Posted by: usability advocate | July 17, 2006 11:19 AM

Gary said:
"People are always kvetching about their personal computers, and for good reason. With the possible exception of Apple's Mac, they are a disgrace, by far the most problematic, frustrating, baffling consumer products on the planet. Maybe off-planet as well."

Hello--BUY A MAC, ya'll--why torture yourselves!

Posted by: efstewart | July 17, 2006 12:22 PM

I don't know who Gary Masters spoke to, but when I called Dell because a Dell wireless card wasn't working with my Dell laptop, the people I spoke to acted as if they had never in their lives seen a computer, and refused to deviate one iota from their script. I solved the problem myself AND posted my solution to Dell's customer support bulletin board, where it is probably ignored by Dell "customer support", but at least other do-it-yourselfers can find it there.

So I'm pretty sure Gary Anthes was being sarcastic when he said "Oh, I guess I could just call Dell Tech Support and ask them my questions. That would be quick and easy, wouldn't it?"

Posted by: The Cosmic Avenger | July 17, 2006 1:10 PM

The problem with poor documentation is just one aspect of a larger issue. Computers should be easy to use and they are not. (I am fairly technically adept myself, but my partner like many people is neither tech savvy nor interested in becoming more tech savvy.) I understand that there are a core group of people that are technically competent; but the majority of computer users are not. Most users just want their computer hardware and software to work. The analogy my partner uses most often is that her laptop should be like an appliance that works once it is turned on. At first, I faulted her for not wanting to learn more about this machine that allowed her to do so many different things. Then I re-thought my position. Dumb users are the majority of customers. As such, they pay the bills and it is not unreasonable for them to want reliable service, with clear and accessible help. The bottom line is that usability and design are playing a greater role in people's purchasing decisions, because computers are now commodities. Those developers and designers that don't start paying attention will lose out in the marketplace, which is good.

Posted by: KISS (Keep it simple stupid) | July 17, 2006 1:38 PM

If the underlying complexity of computers can't be abstracted in a way that makes them truly easy for people to use, one option is to provide a simple front end for the end-user population, maintained by a service provider like the one who provides your broadband access. Many organizations already work like this today. Users don't have to set up their computers, they just plug them in and connect to the server farm hosting their applications.

Fundamentally, it's no different from plug and play printers or setup routines that mean that you don't have to copy a bunch of files to a directory.

Posted by: Another KISS model | July 17, 2006 1:56 PM

Admittedly much computer documentation is lousy. I know, I used my contempt of it to do my job better.

A former newpaper editor, I became a computer tech writer and produced User Guides on proprioritary software (software written in-house for large companies - MCI and the like) a number of years ago as a consultant. My documentation was pretty good, not to brag. Never had any complaints.

I went in cold, asked a lot of questions of the programmers when I couldn't get things to work for me, avoided jargon and, in the end, tried the software and the manual out on third parties. Going in "dumb" was a great help in writing - if I couldn't understand it, I couldn't write about how to use it, could I.

I feel that not many companies producing "public" software or computers work that way, and don't care. The motto is "Get it out the door!" In my case, it HAD to work in the companies I wrote it for, because it was for the use of their staff. Bad documentation wastes time.

A final sad note that applies all around. Lately, when it comes to improving the "bottom line," the first ones to go are the tech writers.

Posted by: Mtndance | July 17, 2006 2:04 PM

I'm pretty sure the last comment was sarcastic- Dell's tech support is *horrible* for home users. If it isn't, then Gary needs to get a brain transplant. But yes, it would be nice to see some documentation, instruction manuals, etc. Unfortunately, even programs that have extensive instruction manuals I find impossible to use without trial and error. You can either be treated like a windows user (automatic downloads!) or like a tech savvy person (this download is to fix error 173483246298.00). There doesn't seem to be any sort of middle ground for those of us with enough tech savvy to want to do it ourselves, but who aren't formally trained computer technicians. Guess I'll go back to waiting on hold for Dell technicians to try to tell me restart my computer (sorry, my computer won't turn on, I can't restart it. No, pressing the power button doesn't help, trust me).

Posted by: Anonymous | July 17, 2006 2:07 PM

I am a technical writer with more than 20 years of experience in documentation. When I write documentation, I actually try out every application myself. I assume that the user is unfamiliar with most, if not all, of the concepts and start from rock bottom (like "Plug it in and turn it on."). Online help sucks, sucks, sucks!!!!! Even looking up something in the index is useless because nothing is indexed logically. For example, Help will tell you how to set something up, but not how to undo it or get rid of it. I have technical indexing experience, so I have a clue about the topic.

Microsoft is the worst. Their documentation must be written by techies for techies, and is counterintuitive. I would prefer to have "dumbed down" instructions than non-intuitive ones.

One of the best pieces of documentation I ever saw was the instruction sheet for setting up my (generic, store-brand) PC from Best Buy. The directions were logical, illustrated, and even showed the customer which connection went where. I set up my PC very quickly and easily.

To me, it is inexcusable and an insult to the customer that Microsoft and other multibillion companies can't spend the bucks for decent documentation. And don't get me started on the Help Desk!

Posted by: catherder | July 17, 2006 2:24 PM

I too write user documentation for the software the company I work for creates. As a Technical Writer, I have an advantage when I set up my own PC at home. BUT, Dell does provide very little to read. And yes it is on the hard drive somewhere. How many people are so comfortable with using Windows Explorer to make it search every nook and crannie on the drive? Not all that many.

Time is the biggest factor. The application get created, and while being tested, and sent back to RnD for further fixes to what they have created, we get time to test the app. and write to it. If everything goes too smoothly, we don't get as much time to create the Help. Help and installation instructions are not afterthoughts, but do get short shrift.

Some companies do it better, some worse. But rarely does the Help get tested by someone other than the writer. How can there help but be missing, or incorrect instructions in three to four hundred pages of text that only Microsoft Word grammar and spell check has been around to complain.

Posted by: Joe | July 17, 2006 2:50 PM

I'd recommend the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" for a deeper discussion of problems around documentation and the people who write documentation.

Posted by: Scott | July 17, 2006 7:43 PM

There was a comment made earlier - "but my partner like many people is neither tech savvy nor interested in becoming more tech savvy." that speaks volumes. In a less generous frame of mind I refer to this as "willful ignorance".

The computer is a tool - it's becoming as ubiquitious as the microwave oven. While it would be completely unreasonable to expect a neophyte to fully grasp the ever-increasing complexities of the computer and operating system(s), a certain level of familiarity with fundamental terms isn't.

One of my favorite analogies from days past was that people would willingly sit in front of their VCR for an hour trying to set the clock, but if they can't get the computer doing everything they want exactly the way they want to do it within 15 minutes the system is deemed "broken" and it's now someone else's responsibility to fix the problem.

Posted by: AR | July 19, 2006 10:36 AM

Your computer is more complicated than your car. When your car breaks, you take it to the garage, you don't break out a service manual. Why should you expect more of a computer?

Posted by: Don'tReadDocs | July 19, 2006 10:46 AM

I was laughing as I read this article. I'm an over-40 computer user and used to gripe about lousy documentation. I've come to realize that nobody nobody nobody younger than me has ever read a page of documentation that came with software or a computer.

Have you ever seen a kid the first time they use a computer? They don't need no stinkin' documentation.

Posted by: Joe | July 19, 2006 11:01 AM

The idea of online documentation for security software is probably a bad one. The first thing a person should do when receiving a new computer is configure its security -- before connecting to the Internet. I highly doubt that Dell preconfigures security to its highest level to protect the machine while users obtain the online docs and read them. And I doubt even more that most users would actually bother to do so, especially the novices. Given the problems with PCs being taken over as botnets, I think companies should have a basic security guide that novices could understand right on top of the computer when they open it. But, unless someone successfully sues a PC manufacturer for negligence or something, it probably won't happen. No financial reason to do so.

Posted by: Hackers Delight | July 19, 2006 11:06 AM

The gripes about bad documentation remind me of an old friend complaining when cars started to use automatic chokes on the engines. "You can never get a car to run right if you can't adjust it yourself."

The Smithsonian probably has some documentation for DOS in those hard cardboard cases that used to hold those old manuals.

To summarize: Producing documentation takes a lot of money and time plus it is difficult to find someone who can write it properly. And almost no one reads it.

Posted by: Joe | July 19, 2006 11:10 AM

If we frustrated buyers of Maxtor give back the product and make it clear why--lousy documentation, attributable in no small part to lousy programming, which unfortunately undermines excellent hardware, then maybe the software and documentation will be cleaned up. (Breath-holding not advised.) Keep the product and you confirm that the makers' cynical approach works.
Didn't Oracle, a few years back, offer online computing in which applications did not reside on users' hardware? Some other enterprising companies offer this now. Eliminates a lot of hardware and applications complaints.

Posted by: Jay | July 19, 2006 1:45 PM

The reason they didn't include a user manual with your Dell computer is because you ought to be able to figure things out intuitively. Seriously, half the plugs are color-coded, and most of them have descriptive symbols. They make them that way on purpose - a hundred page user manual chock-full of technospeak can be daunting to a novice, but pretty pictures can be understood by anybody.

As for the lack of Dell support docs on the security - one, they already have to hire support techs for their helpline. Two, not everyone gets the same add-ons (or any add-ons), and three, the assumption is that most users who get add-ons would need a bit of live-person help to go through the process of setting them up and/or using them properly. It may just make sense from a financial perspective for them to train their support techs - who, again, they had to hire anyway - rather than print out at possibly higher cost manuals that most users would neither need nor, possibly, understand.

Posted by: Anonymous | July 19, 2006 2:17 PM


To continue your analogy, it's a matter of degree. There's a difference between diagnosing a failed fuel pump and not looking at the dashboard indicator to see that you're out of gas. There's too much of the latter, and too many people who see zero value in perhaps trying to learn the former (who will all too frequently follow up by loudly expounding on how auto mechanics are thieves and idiots and they shouldn't have to pay so much for a repair and...)

Posted by: AR | July 20, 2006 1:33 PM

I am a professional tech writer and I can clearly state what the problems are.

1. Lack of respect for the profession from executives, engineers, and others who think our primary job is to format text and run spell check.
2. Influx of unqualified writers, such as former support workers, coders, and testers who poured into the profession when their jobs disappeared.
3. Shift of technical writing jobs overseas to save money.

Dell used to have the best documentation in the industry until one of the executives decided they could save money by cutting the department by 2/3 and sending most of the work to India.

Technical Writing is one of the most misunderstood high tech professions. Just because someone has technical knowledge and can write does not make them a technical writer. The profession has standards and best practices that incude learning the product, acting as a user advocate, testing the product and producing usable documentation.

The value a good technical writer adds can even be seen to the bottom line, but I have yet to find an executive who is interested in having that discussion.

Posted by: Susan | July 26, 2006 9:51 PM

You get what you pay for. Computers are now a commodity and a very competetive business with price being the key selling point. Unfortunately we shouldn't expect Dell to spend a lot of money on expensive documentation that few read if it makes them less competetive with Compaq.
If you want easy operation and maintenance buy from a full service local computer shop who build machines with quality components and set them up and repair them properly. You will get peace of mind but for a price.

Posted by: Sam | July 31, 2006 9:44 PM

I have called Tech support many times. I don't any more. I can't understand a word they have said and they get tremendously annoyed when I ask them to repeat it.

Posted by: Kathleen | August 4, 2006 12:36 PM

I've been through the Windows ME and now Windows XP - HP Pavilion a1330n. I've learned to copy error messages, print them out, then google for answers. That usually works - either that or reboot.

Posted by: Joe | August 4, 2006 6:50 PM

I have been trying to help my sister with her Dell laptop. She did not buy the extended warranty of 4 years. She developed a virus and worm or plural of each. Since her 1-year warranty was up, she took the laptop to a local computer repair shop. The viruses and worms were deleted, but the computer did not function well on the internet. She called Dell, and they said that only Dell support could remove viruses and worms. She was missing some drivers, and they would not send them to her. They said if she was under warranty, they could send the repairs over the internet. Remember it does not work to receive the corrections. She finally got them to agree to send her the CD's so she could repair her computer for about $40. We keep getting e-mails for us to return the CD's after using them. We have never received them! We have been on hold for hours, talked to an Indian who spoke very clearly, but didn't seem to understand. It was like he spoke a different language. Call backs were never made by Dell. She found out that after 4 years of the warranty, they give no support. This problem with Dell support has been going on for 6 months.

Posted by: Carole | August 7, 2006 7:07 PM

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