After many years of blogging, and consistent with my desire to move toward retirement, we have ended the Insights blog. Thanks to Doug Bedell for his years of blog support.

Daunted by a TV Manual that Shouldn’t Exist

Posted on April 29, 2013
Filed Under Communication, Technology | Leave a Comment

8526776From New Zealand comes word that our ordeal with the manual for our Toshiba DVD Video Player/Video Cassette Recorder isn’t unique. Lots of manuals aren’t written clearly or well. Don’t they know that qualified technical writers are available for those assignments? Writing about Digital Living, Abbie Napier introduces us to Emma Harding (pictured), a technical writer who is hired “to reduce, simplify and streamline.”

Hasn’t Toshiba heard that such blessed folks exist, all around the world?

“You have two choices:,” Abbie  writes, “Throw the remote on the floor in disgust and leave the programme guide in German, or perservere with a manual which may as well be written in latin (actually, that should be a capital “L”). A useless manual, help function, website or document is both infuriating and stressful.”

Indeed it is. The question, however, is how do such botched jobs of consumer relations technical writing ever get out the door?  Doesn’t the manufacturer responsible for such travesties care? Do obscure manuals represent a crisis of public relations before one of technical writing? These are questions of our age, and it’s a shame to have to ask them.

More attention should be given, actually, to documents going to consumers than those being prepared for workers in the technical settings from which they originated. But are those relatively esoteric precincts the only places where technical writers are deemed necessary? Do they even have them all the time there? We’re talking about truly professional technical writers, technicians with the blessed ability and accompanying conscience to care deeply that their instructions will be readily understood and who know how to bring that about?

Emma Harding, it turns out, has a degree in linguistics. That’s great, but it may actually be overkill. What matters most in the craft of writing to be understood is the conscience to put yourself in the a relatively innocent reader’s shoes, to be insistent to yourself and to your employer that you’ll be understood by such a reader. That’s a compulsion in empathy, actually, not so much a test of linguistic skill.

Toshiba apparently thought they’d wow us with pictures and diagrams. All they accomplished, though, was to bring a minefield alive. It’s the text, folks, simpe, orderly, start-to-finish, text that counts most. Toshiba didn’t understand where a new user would be starting, and we don’t fathom where they ended up. Somehow, we got a picture after putting the manual aside. But the ire remains. What company, of whatever nationality, would want its customers to feel that way?

“Unfortunately,” Amy writes, “not everything gets the technical writer once-over before it hits the public.” Maybe that’s what happened at Toshiba. But how could a company of its standing, indeed, any company, let that happen? Good technical writers ought to be seen as heroes and heroines of our times. Indeed, that identity should have been established at the start of the Industrial Revolution itself. Technology is worth very little if it’s not readily useable by the people it’s supposed to be serving.

Does that come as a revelation? It really shouldn’t. But check your own modern video recorder’s manual for readability. Do you wish you had a technical writer, or at this downstream point, a technical interpreter, in your family? You shouldn’t need one. Clear, readily readable instructions should be part of every 21st century sales package wherever you live. – Doug Bedell  


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