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?
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