Let’s Ring the Death Knell for Printed Manuals

4 minute read
| Editorial

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.

Death knell for printed manuals

Let’s ring the death knell for printed manuals and say good riddance

Most Users Didn’t Read Them Anyways

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.

Operating Systems Are Far Too Complex Now

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.

The Project Wouldn’t Be Timely

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.

The Cost Would Be Tremendous

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 Problem of Discoverability

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.

There Are Other, More Effective, Methods

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.

So Yes, It’s Time to Ring the Death Knell for Printed Manuals

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.

9 Comments Add a comment

  1. +

    Let’s not forget to add: Getting rid of printed manuals is so much better for the environment. Trees don’t need felled for paper. Solvents aren’t needed for inks. The energy re

  2. +

    Aargh we really need to be able to edit posts! In any case, continuing: The energy required to ship heavy paper manuals is no longer needed. And all the landfill space once used for all those unread paper manuals is spared.

    I used to work as a technical writer for CompuServe (remember them?) back before Windows 95 even came out. There was no Internet as we know it today, PDF was in its infancy, and no one had ever heard of a website. Its been fascinating to watch how things have evolved since then in both technical writing and printed media in general. (I moved into marketing communications in 1999 and literally watched whole empires based on printed materials crumble. Ever hear of the Thomas Directory? It was a thing in 1999, and bigger than a set of encyclopedias. Kudos if you remember encyclopedias, too!)

  3. There is a manual. A manual for everything. It’s called Google. If I run into an issue, or hear about a neat feature I want to use the VERY first thing I do is Google it. If Apple hasn’t documented it I know that 999 times out of a thousand SOMEBODY did a blog post or a Reddit post, or asked the question on some forum somewhere. Of course in the old days you always had the problem of “If I can’t get online how can I look it up”. But now few of us are ever stuck with just ONE way of going online.

  4. maxglitz

    I do understand why manuals are no longer viable. Sadly, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with the avalanche of tweaks and changes forced on us every day. It angers me to be running along doing things on my Mac and then discovering a perfectly workable command or other way to achieve a goal no longer works because it was changed for no apparent reason other than change itself. AND WITH NO ANNOUNCEMENT about the fact so that you then have to spend a great deal of time Googling or in forums with other folks stumbling around lost because of the changes. I’ve been on a Mac since the earliest days and it’s always been this way, only now I think it’s worse. Don’t fix what’s not broken while you’re trying to improve something else.

  5. d'monder

    Depends. For anything tech, absolutely! Other than a tough hidden setting who RTFMs today anyway? The hardware will be out of service before the manual is lost.

    For other areas, let’s not be so quick. At least give us an option to buy print. Case in point: I work around industrial machinery with lifespan in decades. That printed manual from 1972 is a lot more helpful than an IBM tape reel. 🙂 Guess there’s always microfiche!

  6. Jamie

    It may be true that you can google pretty much whatever, but we shouldn’t *have* to rely on that, it’s just lazy in my opinion. It would be nice if Apple would do SOME kind of documentation for their stuff, I’m pretty tired of discovering features months later that I should have been aware of from the get go. The onus is on a company to document their product’s features, not the blogosphere. Hunting and pecking on the web should not be the only available option.

    I also disagree: for some things, printed manuals are far, far superior. It’s a pain in the *** to have to read a PDF or a website on a device while you are simultaneously trying to learn how it functions. The ‘most’ that don’t read them anyway that bought a _____ to Snapchat are not the ones that need the information, anyway. For those of us that don’t actually work for Apple, some better documentation would be nice, they used to excel at this. Just because something is a trend doesn’t mean that it’s better or good.

  7. vpndev

    Sure, I don’t want big hulking manuals included in every box. But in the rush to save all the trees, do not forget that there are good uses for print. And some selected printed manuals.

    And unfortunately the rush to save the trees has led to the elimination of technical documentation in almost any form. Sure, you can find hints and suggestions on Google but these are rarely definitive and sometimes flat-out wrong. And the stuff is hard to find even at the best of times. Of course, the worst of times is when the system doesn’t come up or networking is broken and you can’t get to Google.

    Years ago Caroline Rose at Apple (and others in her team whose names I do not know) wrote superb documents. Some were printed, others were online – but they were great. I used them a lot, and commented back to her on occasion. But that glorious age is with is no more.

    The big issue is not whether the manuals are printed, or not, but if the information is available.

    As an example – can you change the language setting for “Maps” on iOS without changing the the installation language? [Hint: yes]. If so, how? And what else changes?

    Answers in comments please, and also how you came to know.

  8. Scott B in DC

    If Apple or any software company was smart, they would have a base set of manuals and then edit them for every version. That would take less than than it would to write the entire document set for OS/2 Warp. In fact, this is how Unix was done until it was fractured. Now the documentation is an accumulation of man pages and How Tos.

    Then again, I am talking about developer tools for the developer. Those are well documented, even by Apple. Developers, for the most part, RTFM. User’s don’t! Maybe that’s why Apple and all other software companies put the same effort into writing manuals as users do reading them.

  9. jackadoodle

    There is no environmental problem with printed materials. Anything that creates jobs or provides usefulness is supposedly against the environment.

    Back in the ’80s a good printed manual with a spiral binder was often great for onboarding oneself with a new printer or piece of software. I would welcome the return.

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