Why have printed user’s manuals all but disappeared from the computer industry? Quite a few people bemoan the fact that you rarely see these manuals for software anymore. Sure, there’s a huge genre of third-party books that dive into operating systems, apps, and software packages. But the folks who actually develop those products rarely print manuals these days. I think a better question is why haven’t we already given up on the idea of a printed manual. Let’s just go ahead and ring the death knell for printed manuals.
It’s sad, but it’s true—most users don’t read user manuals. When I worked in technical support, we had an acronym for what we wanted to tell most of our customers. RTFM: Read the Friendly Manual. Okay, we didn’t mean the “F” to stand for friendly, but I’m sure you already knew that.
The truth was evident even back in 1995 when Microsoft released Windows 95. Most folks have a tendency to just dive into using a new operating system without reading a manual. Like the cliché about men asking for directions, reading the instructions was simply not to be done for most people. They’d figure it out for themselves.
Sometimes, they succeeded. More often than not, they didn’t, and that meant job security for me and thousands like me. That’s reason number one to announce the official time-of-death of the printed manual.
After one of my tips articles outlining five “hidden” macOS features, a reader posed this question. “Why is Apple hiding things that make our lives easier?” In truth, the concept of these features being “hidden” is a misnomer. The trouble is the software behind operating systems has become quite complex since the days of Windows 95 and Apple’s System 7.
There’s so much packed into our modern operating systems that a single book wouldn’t be able to cover everything. I recently joked that a comprehensive guide to every feature, keyboard shortcut, and gesture within macOS Sierra would take as many volumes as the Oxford English Dictionary. That compendium spans 20 volumes in 21,730 pages. My comparison might be an exaggeration, but not by much, and that’s the second reason to ring the death knell for printed manuals.
I’m not saying that it couldn’t be done. However, the fact is that there are far too many developers working on the various aspects of a modern operating system to properly document everything. Even assuming the use of multiple experts in technical documentation, the work required would necessitate a large team of writers. They’d work for months, if not years, exploring and detailing every facet of the operating system.
When I worked at IBM, I was involved in helping to write the user’s manual for OS/2 Warp 4. That project took almost a full year to complete, and the operating system didn’t have nearly the complexity of something like macOS Sierra. I would estimate it would take a team of about 30 writers at least two years to explore every aspect of a modern operating system and properly document it.
At the rate that Apple and others release new versions of their operating systems, the writers would never be able to keep up. Can you imagine getting your hands on the user’s manual for macOS Sierra a year after Apple releases the next version, macOS High Sierra? So there’s a third reason to ring that death knell for printed manuals.
In 1995, when I was working on the manual for OS/2 Warp 4, we typically earned a base salary of approximately $27,000. Double that today, and you’ve got what a good technical writer typically begins his or her career at.
Now imagine a team of 30 such writers, and a project lead. The cost would be tremendous, and Apple doesn’t charge anything for operating system upgrades anymore.
The biggest reason, I think, for the death of the printed manual is discoverability. In a nutshell, you won’t know what to look for if you don’t know what you might be able to do. Most folks might not even guess that pressing the space bar on their keyboard while an app or document is selected could do anything at all. How, then, do you make such a feature known? Not through a printed manual, that’s for sure — few people would even find such an entry.
With the latest technology, finally, the printed manual is simply outdated. The idea behind it doesn’t work for most computer users, who prefer to learn through how-to videos. That’s exactly what Apple has begun doing, and they’re wise to do so.
Apple’s Twitter support feed, its online knowledge base, and its series of YouTube videos work together to obviate the need for a printed manual. We can learn much more effectively, and quickly, by seeing it done rather than reading about it.
None of this is to say that Apple is doing an outstanding, perfect job of documenting its software. It isn’t. Cupertino should, in my opinion, dedicate a larger team to providing us with the tweets and videos that document the full capabilities of macOS. Of course, if they did that, I might find myself out of a job short of moving to the Bay Area. It’s time to give up the idea of books for software, ring the death knell for printed manuals, and focus on better ways to impart how to use your operating system.