Don't Forget That Manual!

By V. Berba Velasco Jr., Ph.D.

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No user manual? Surely you jest!

It may seem comical, but it's a surprisingly common situation. I've encountered many companies that don't provide any user manuals with their products. If they do, their manuals are often horribly incoherent, or else years out of date. It shouldn't happen, but it happens all the time.

Now, this problem is less common when buying off-the-shelf software or consumer electronics. That's because these products typically come from large corporations that pay attention to such details. Among smaller engineering firms though, this is a frequent occurrence. In fact, I'd estimate that about half of the small engineering companies that I've encountered are guilty of this offense.

I remember how one engineer told me why his company didn't provide any user manuals with their products. In hushed tones, he said, "It's because we don't make any money by writing manuals. It's not a money-making venture, so our management doesn't want to waste time on this." An annoyed expression crept into his face, then he leaned closer and said, "We have lost so many customers because we don't have decent documentation. Talk about being penny-wise, pound-foolish!"

It's not just the customers who suffer when manuals are inadequate or non-existent. What about the employees themselves? What happens when a new engineer comes on board, and has to learn quickly? Or what happens when existing engineers need to familiarize themselves more with unfamiliar aspects of their product lines? The user documentation, if properly written, can provide a gentle and efficient way of bringing the up to speed. Without it, they will be forced to rely more heavily on other engineers to educate them, thus wasting the time of everyone concerned. Weeks, if not months, of valuable manpower can be squandered in this fashion.

At times, a company will pay lip service to user documentation by slapping together some hastily written document that is difficult for a new user to digest. "Who cares about wording anyway?" I've heard many engineers say. "We're not writing poetry or screenplays here. What matters is that the manual must be technically accurate."

This is an appallingly short-sighted view. Technical accuracy is indeed important, but so are presentation and style. Few engineers would listen to a job applicant who shows up in a bathrobe and slippers, or a litigation attorney who speaks like a valley girl-and yet somehow, these same engineers expect their customers to slog through pages of meandering, poorly phrased text. Even matters as fundamental as spelling, grammar and proofreading are often treated as mere annoyances-piddling details that are worth nothing more than a cursory glance.

(To my relief, I have not encountered any such attitudes at my place of employment. I hasten to say this, lest anyone think that I'm complaining about the people that I work with! No, I've found that we all appreciate the value of excellence, for which I am always thankful. But I digress.)

Mind you, I understand that there are times when a company might not choose to invest an all-out effort in user manual development. This can happen during the early startup stages, for example, when manpower is in short supply and the products are still undergoing refinement. Unfortunately, many small companies never grow past that stage. Even after many years, they continue to thinks of user documentation as a trifling detail which deserves only a modicum of effort. By perpetuating that mindset, they ultimately shortchange both the customers and themselves.

Like it or not, a company's user documentation (or lack thereof) is a reflection on the company itself. You can be sure that your customers will notice if the user manuals are poor or non-existent. In today's busy world, where people need to absorb information as efficiently as possible, the lack of quality documentation can be nothing short of disastrous.


About the Author:

V. Berba Velasco has a doctorate in Electrical Engineering and has been plying his trade for nearly a decade. During that time, he has repeatedly discovered the importance of good technical writing, and the pitfalls that can occur from ignoring its value.

Dr. Velasco currently works as a senior electrical and software engineer for Cellular Technology Ltd, a biotech company that develops ELISPOT assays and ELISPOT analysis tools. Dr. Velasco takes great pride in the company's commitment to user-friendliness and product excellence.


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