Talk Box(6)

LET’S RE-INVENT THE OWNER’S MANUALRemember how technology was supposed to make our lives simpler? Well, in case you haven’t noticed, in some ways it hasn’t. When Apple or Microsoft sneezes, shudders run throughout the music industry as software companies scramble to update their products, others scramble to make sure their products work with other company’s products, and we all scramble to get a stable system once more. And there are a variety of hidden problems — and hidden bonuses — that appear only after a program has been out for a while. Maybe that’s why when a software product comes with a CD- or DVD-ROM, the first thing a savvy user does is visit the company website and download any updates.

In this brave new virtual world, the model of a printed owner’s manual similar to that used for hardware seems increasingly quaint. The PDF manual was one step forward (or backward, depending on your viewpoint) as it could get slapped on to the distribution medium at the last moment — unlike print, which has a major lead time. Manuals are often printed before software is complete, leading to confusion and errata sheets.

These days, internet forums are helping to take up the slack as users (and company representatives) help other users to discover new problems and overcome incompatibilities. But maybe we need to take this concept further, and go for a Wikipedia-like, open-source-based documentation model. Imagine this: A company sets up a forum designed specifically for documenting tips, workarounds, and the like. Someone from the company then edits this into a separate online, downloadable document containing all this information in an organized, indexed way. As bugs are squelched, workarounds can be deleted; new sections can be added as new features appear. Thus, the manual would always be up to date, and in sync with the latest software version.

Would it cost the company something? Yes, but when you consider printing costs, and shipping for a heavy manual, the hit might not be that bad. Furthermore, having an up-to-date manual would encourage consumers to keep updated. Granted, many resist the idea of not having a printed manual, and that’s understandable: Printed manuals are convenient, and printed “Quick Start” guides will likely survive. But even the strongest advocates of printed versions eventually realize that a searchable, findable document has its advantages. Besides, if you really want a printed document, you can print one out (probably in black and white, so you don’t have to pay too much for color printer cartridges!).

In any event, it’s time to re-think the role of a manual, and how to present it to users — just as software has forced us to re-think the role of the studio.