Operating Manuals (opmans) can offer:
- background information (on the subject pertaining to the device)
- equipment description (features, architecture, connections, use, operating conditions)
- operating instructions (eg step by step instructions, tutorials)
- troubleshooting (eg error codes)
- update and accessory information
So, what makes a good manual? I'll begin answering that by pointing out some bad examples:
- too little information - some manuals are little more than a sales brochure
- too much information (eg the opman includes a full technical repair section)
- information pitched at the wrong level - you don't really want a kiddie version manual with a piece of pro gear. Nor should the manual assume you have a degree for a piece of hobby gear.
- poor English - a lot of products are oriental, so translation is important. It takes quite some time for a country to develop these language skills to a good standard.
- misleading information (eg "sales talk")
- insufficient or poor quality diagrams - with equipment manuals a picture really is worth a thousand words
- sections not in a good order, or a poor contents and/or indexing
To be fair, it is not that easy to write a really good opman. If you don't believe me try writing some simple instructions for, say, changing a car wheel. Your first attempt will almost certainly have the user come back and query some part of it. After a revision or two it will probably be ok. It is even more difficult when a manufacturer writes a manual for a piece of equipment. Many items we buy these days are complex and several different departments are involved in the design and build (eg software engineers, hardware engineers, production team, marketing dept.). They will all have their in-house documentation but just hobbling together bits of information from the various teams will not make a very good opman. Luckily, the pioneering age for the opman is now over (at least in the West), and decent manufacturers realise that an extra team is needed for generating all the manuals. However, more and more equipment is being manufactured in the startup industrialised nations of Asia. They are still at the stage of thinking of the manual as an afterthought, or perhaps an inconvenience. This will change (probably when they realise that, just like slick packaging, quality documentation can add value to the product).
A good manual, therefore, has:
- simple explanations (ie only as complicated as need be)
- concise text
- pictures (preferably colour)
- one language only (multi-language opmans are often hard to follow)
- a glossary
- humour (eg Mackie manuals)
- an overview
- well defined sections
- application examples
- accompanying DVD/ CD-ROM
- supplier contact details (for your country)
ok, maybe that last one is superfluous now that every company has a website.
Here is how I used to read manuals:
- When I get a new piece of equipment I leave it in the box until I have read the manual right through. This is called delayed gratification, and is proven to be a winning strategy in life.
- Next I go through any tutorial provided while using the equipment.
- Finally, I refer back to the manual as a reference, using the applicable section (I can find the information quickly as I have already read the entire manual).
This was all well and good back when manuals were no longer than 30 pages. This is still the case for some hardware but software is a different story. With the manuals spanning several volumes and totalling thousands of pages, it no longer makes sense to do no.1 so after reading the install docs I will cut to the chase and start on no. 2. The downsides of this are that not having read the whole manual I can easily miss out on some of the features the software provides, and it is not nearly so easy to find information when I get stuck. But there you go, that's progress for you.
In any case, don't throw the manual out with the packaging. If you want to be a Power-user of your gear, start reading the manuals.