How to Troubleshoot When You’re Manualphobic

erica-manfred2Last week in Aging With Geekitude, Erica reported on some interesting in-development and brand new health tech apps and gadgets for older people – read about it!  This week,  she’s got some tips for all of us who can’t handle manuals.


What the hell! I’d just plugged my new Altec Lansing speakers into my computer and was looking forward to stereo sound. Instead, total silence! OK, they only cost twenty bucks, but I’d never had speakers not work at all. They usually at least emitted static. I kept plugging and unplugging, checking every possibility. I tried my old speaker and it worked fine. As I was ready to stuff the goddamned things back into the box and print out a return label, it occurred to me to turn them over. There was a little switch on the underside of one of them.

Duh! I hadn’t turned them on.

I admitted my faux pas to my Facebook friends, and one commented: RTFM. (Translation: Read the *%$*ing manual!) I hate manuals – but I refuse to take the rap on this. I had actually looked for a manual and found only a warranty booklet. When did they start making electronic gadgets and not even bothering to write instructions, I wondered?


What is it with manuals?


Why do people hate manuals, anyway? Simple. Most are as incomprehensible as the devices they’re supposed to explain. Why is this? The answer is also simple. They’re not written by me, or by someone like me who knows what people like me – or like you – need to know. They’re written by the product designers, who are so removed from the buying public that they have no idea how to explain their products. Because they’re under 30, the designers can also read the tiny print their manuals come in.

Some people read manuals selectively, usually based on age. My carpenter/handyman who is pushing 60 has no problem reading a manual when he’s assembling a desk or installing a gas stove, but he relies on his kids to explain his cell phone. My friend Denise Terry, who is around my age, says, “I feel like my brain is completely unable to take in what the manuals offer. I do read directions for assembling toys and furniture – but nothing about electronics.”

It’s not that I don’t want to read the manual – I always mean to get around to it – but  somehow it never happens. I “play with” the device until I figure it out.  Or not.


Why I never set the alarm on my digital alarm clock


Read it and weep.

Instructions for setting alarm:

A. Under {time display mode} press the [MODE] key to enter the {alarm display mode}. If no other operation occurs, it will return to {time display mode} automatically in 3 seconds.
B. Under {alarm display mode} press the [MODE] key to enter into {second display mode}. Press the [SET] key and the second value will be reset, and press the [MODE] key to return to the {time display mode}.
C. Under the time display mode.
a. Press the {SET} key to enter into the state of {alarm and chime setting}. At this time the alarm hour and the alarm minute will flicker together. Press the [MODE] key, the {alarm} and the {chime} might be switched on and off circularly.

I’ll use the other alarm clock – the one that ticks – thank you very much. (Or the one on my smartphone.)


Manuals with pictures and online manuals


Everything today comes disassembled, which is a nightmare for the spatially challenged among us. I once stared for an hour at the picture instructions that came with a standing lamp, but hopelessly twisted up the cord when I tried to put the sections of the pole together. I brought back the lamp and insisted that the salesman assemble it for me. Printers that come with illustrated “quick start” manuals should say “Quick start for engineers, slow start for English majors.”

These days, many manufacturers no longer bother including paper manuals, but post them on the Internet instead. This saves them money and costs their customers. Either you have to spend on pricey ink to print them, or you have to haul the computer out to the car to figure out how the CD player works. Online manuals also lead to lazy, overlong, disorganized instructions. Why bother to be concise if you can take 200 pages to explain something?


Troubleshooting tips for the manualphobic


RTFM Before throwing up your hands in frustration, at least take a look at the manual. It might not be so bad.  Some are a lot better than others. “I am so bad at reading manuals. I always think I don’t need to,” says one of my Facebook friends, Ronald Shirah.  “Then I find out six months later I have been missing out on a third of what the device can do.”

Call Customer Service  I don’t even bother with some manuals, they’re so confusing. If there’s an 800 number it’s worth a try. “A good (instant) helpline will get us set up right from the beginning, and as long as it’s a good product they’ll never have to hear from us again,” says Sue Katz, a Facebook friend who has given me great tech advice.

Search the online manual The upside of online manuals is that they’re searchable. Use Control+F to search for what you want, then print out the relevant pages and take your time figuring them out.

If you can’t find your printed manual Check out: Retrovo and Manuals Online. These websites have collected hundreds of user manuals, and you’re likely to find yours there, ready to download or print.

Google your question Use plain language to describe the problem in the Google search bar – this strategy will lead you to an answer either on a forum, on the manufacturer’s website or on YouTube. I found the answer to “Where is the FM radio on my Samsung Galaxy S3?” on the Android forum, which I rely on for smartphone questions. These days, almost every product that needs explaining has a YouTube video made either by professional reviewers or by geeky kids who just love to make YouTube videos. These videos are usually very helpful – or at least more helpful than the manual. In fact, here is someone on YouTube explaining how to set the alarm on a digital clock radio (she couldn’t RTFM either).

Buy the Dummies Book Bad manuals have been a boon for the company that publishes the “Dummies” books. Dilbert explains the underlying rationale.


Are you manualphobic? tell me about it!

Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.


6 responses to “How to Troubleshoot When You’re Manualphobic

  1. Erica, thank you so much for helping me feel I am not alone! I’ve been so frustrated just trying to nail the basics in the 106-page manual I found online for my new cell phone. Your helpful tips sparked another strategy worth pursuing: asking a 30-something friend to help me. It could be a good chance for intergenerational bonding too, because there are nontechnical life things she will want to ask me. Luckily your carpenter friend has kids he can ask. Those of us who don’t might have younger friends who don’t mind helping out.

  2. Very funny, also helpful, Erica! It’s true, some manuals are impossible, especially the ones for the newer alarm clocks, for some reason. They are more complicated and for no good reason than the older alarm clocks. I think the makers feel competitive with computers.

  3. Another wonderful and true to my heart article! I suffer every symptom, ailment and deprived indifference as described in the article. I just do without!! I’m probably missing everything in the world (!) but unless someone shows me something….and I imitate that command – I’m helpless.

  4. Lately, I’ve been using your last point – just searching for what I need to know – when I’m being put on some endless horrid hold on some useless “customer service.” Long before I get to talk to anyone, I can usually find the answer online. Thanks for the candor about these damned manuals.

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