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How to Cope With Useless User Manuals

Stop cursing those incomprehensible product handbooks and start complaining

By Caroline Mayer

Among the growing list of pet peeves we accumulate as we age, few rank higher than unusable user manuals, at least in my house. Just say the words “user manual” to my husband and you can almost see steam starting to erupt.
Here’s his latest aggravating experience with the user manual for our Stihl weed whacker (which he calls “the Cadillac of string trimmers”), trying to find out how to reload the string: 
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“The device comes with a satisfyingly hefty Instruction Manual of 123 pages. But wait! Half the pages are in Spanish, and at least two-thirds (by my eyeball estimate) of what remains are warnings. (The first 13 pages are all warnings.) But surely, after the warnings, all is revealed, right? Wrong. Nowhere in the manual does it explain the weight (thickness) of nylon string to use when reloading the trimmer, nor does it explain how to install the string into the double-threaded spool so that it feeds correctly. Reloading string is the third most common function a user will need to do, after starting/stopping and refueling. After multiple hair-tearing sessions with incorrectly feeding string, I finally took the trimmer into the dealer, where I got a free lesson on string replacement. All is well now, but why couldn't those instructions have been included in the manual, along with all the warnings that surely go with it?”
User Manuals: Wretchedly Designed
Karen Schriver, president of KSA Communication Design and Research, a Pittsburgh consultant, says today’s product handbooks are generally much better than they were in the 1980s and '90s but “a lot of poorly written and wretchedly designed manuals still exist.”
Take the one she just received with her new Pentax camera. A verbatim lowlight:
The Shake Reduction function is available with any K-R compatible Pentax lens. However, when the aperture ring is set to other than the (auto) position or a lens without an position is used, the camera will not operate unless [22. Using Aperture Ring] is set to [Permitted] in the [C Custom Setting 4] menu. Set this beforehand. In such cases, however, some functions will be restricted. Refer to “Notes on [22. Using Aperture Ring],” (p. 314) for details.
This is an example of the biggest annoyances with product manuals: They make it extremely hard to find a simple answer to your problem.
Schriver says the words she quoted from her Pentax manual were highlighted "Useful Information." But, she notes, they are “only useful to readers who are willing to be like a detective, flipping from section to section, comparing diagrams, tables, and procedures in order to piece together the content and make it add up.” 
2 Big Annoyances
Two other big annoyances of some user manuals:
They have too many pictures and not enough words. Think Ikea, which originated this model so it could sell its home-furnishing products worldwide. Without words, a user manual may omit key steps.
They’re online only. Sometimes manufacturers don’t include the manuals in their product packaging and just post them electronically. This saves them money and it also means you needn’t keep paper versions handy.
Too often, though, online manuals have too much information with too little organization or inadequate search tools, so you must scroll through pages of text to find what you need — if you’re lucky.
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On top of that, you must either read the manual online or print it out. But the product and your computer might be in different rooms. And you’re sunk if you don’t have Wi-Fi access when and where you need it. Our lawn tools are in the garage but our Wi-Fi doesn’t carry through the concrete walls.
Why User Manuals Are Problematic
So why are user manuals often so lousy? There are a couple of reasons.
Manufacturers sometimes turn over manual writing to designers, says Janice (Ginny) Redish, president of Redish & Associates Inc., a Bethesda, Md., consultant specializing in clear communications. The designers, Redish adds, “don’t realize that they aren’t typical of all their users. Many are young and so they don’t have the poor eyesight of older users. They also aren't used to thinking like average consumers.
Another culprit: The manufacturers’ attorneys, says Annetta Cheek, chair of the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit Falls Church, Va., group that presses for clearer language in government and business documents.
Cheek says lawyers write “for that 0.1 percent of the time when somebody might sue.” Consequently, the manuals become laden with dense wording to prevent potential lawsuits. (In an earlier Next Avenue post, I wrote about wacky warnings on products that also result from lawyers trying to protect their corporate clients.)
4 Tips To Reduce Frustrations
Consumer advocates offer the following tips to reduce your user manual frustrations and maybe eliminate them:
1. If you have a problem with a product that the manual can’t solve, use the Internet as a research tool. Search the company’s website and look online for solutions from other users of the item that’s giving you trouble.
Some manufacturers — and users — have useful how-to videos that may answer your question. I found a video that seemed to make my husband's weed-trimming string task a snap (literally, since a snap was the final step in reloading the string).
2. For a electric or electronic product, or one requiring assembly, factor the user manual into your purchasing decision. Just as you might read consumer reviews before buying something costly, read the manual before you buy to see if you’d be able to follow it. You can ask to leaf through one at the store, but it’s probably best to search for it online. Check, too, to see if the product offers free technical support.
3. Use websites that aggregate user manuals. They can be a godsend if you’ve lost yours. Two good sources: Retrovo and Manuals Online.
4. Complain. If you find an incomprehensible or incomplete manual, call the manufacturer and voice your concern, nicely but firmly. “If people call the complaint line, it will start costing the company time and money, so the business will have to start paying attention,” Cheek says.
Also, post your user manual gripe on the website of the store where you bought the item as well as the manufacturer’s site and Facebook page, so other people will know about the problem before they buy.
“Consumers have to be more engaged and demand material that’s clear and easy to read,” Cheek says.

Amen to that.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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