There should be a Congressional investigation into why no one can write a comprehensible manual for using the computer. I'm reasonably intelligent, but whenever I come to a point where my deskbeast won't do what I want/need it to do, the situation rapidly deteriorates into chaos.

First, I visit the HELP section. Here I am given a list of instructions that leads in a very wide, very challenging circle, accomplishing nothing but ending with the question, "Did this solve the problem?" If the answer is NO, they don't want to hear it.

Then I go online for help. Here the instructions for solving the problem are written in an obscure dialect used by the ancient Hittites intermittently studded with offers to download programs guaranteed to fix the problem for only $39.95. Maybe they would, but I never get them to download; the beast doesn't like the way they look or smell or whatever.

So we try the manual. It is hundreds of pages long, but in all of that recorded wisdom there is not one reference to the problem I'm currently experiencing. It is nicely formatted, though.

Finally there's the dreaded phone call. The tech understands the beast much better than I do; if only he understood English, too. The last one scolded me for talk of repair shops. "We can help you fix it, mum. You do not need to pay." But the call got dropped just as I finished explaining the problem, probably due to a storm over the Indian Ocean.

That leads to your local fix-it guy. He's odd as two sticks, but he nods sagely when I explain the problem. Then he wipes everything off the hard drive, charges me a one arm and a leg to the knee, and sends me home to try to cope with the mess.

Now I know why medieval families planned that one child would be dedicated to the church. I should have forced one of my children to embrace this new religion.

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Comment by Peg Herring on April 6, 2009 at 10:20pm
Thanks for the clarification. It doesn't make me any happier, but I can relate. I used to write grants, and I kept getting held up by the thought of what I was promising the powers that be that these poor teachers would do to "earn" that money. Other grant folks kept telling me not to worry about that. My job was to, as Dana says, get it out the door and to hell with the little people.
Comment by Dana King on April 6, 2009 at 11:46am
Having worked for a couple of software companies, I can vouch for all of Toni's assertions, and add one of my own: the marketing types don't really give a rat's ass. They want the product out the door on the promised date. They routinely send out incomplete product, and product with known bugs. They're not going to let the manual hold them up.
Comment by Toni L.P. Kelner on April 6, 2009 at 3:01am
Why are manuals so bad? I spent ten years as a tech writer, so I can offer some possibilities:

* A lousy tech writer. I've run into a few--no more than there are lousy practitioners of any profession, of course, but they're around.

* The person who wrote the manual wasn't a tech writer at all, but a programmer or customer support rep or quality assurance person or a secretary--in short, anybody who wasn't trained as a tech writer. That happens, too.

* The manual had to be finished the same day as the coding finished, even though changes were being made to the product up until the last minute. The ideal situation would be to complete the product, and then allow plenty of time for tech writers and quality assurance people to check it all out. I never saw an ideal situation.

* The programmers were too busy to review the manual to make sure it was accurate.

* The product is just badly designed. You can't do a good manual for a bad product.

So the real mystery is why any manual is any good.

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