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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

When 'User-Friendly' Becomes User Ignorant

Last week I spent two days configuring a simple piece of hardware. According to the manufacturer, installation of my new Iomega tape streamer should have taken five minutes. Like many new products aimed at the computer consumer market, it was promoted for its "ease of use." The manual had been stripped of all detailed descriptions and consisted of a short series of basic installation steps with pictures. When I got to Step 9 -- the computing equivalent of "now just slip it into the oven for 30 minutes" -- nothing happened.

Extra information on the diskettes that came with the streamer -- a device used to store large amounts of data on tape -- was a little more helpful, suggesting that what was happening to me was by no means uncommon. Nevertheless, it gave me no answers.

Because my problem related to the setup of my system, I took a look at my Windows 95 documentation. My Windows 95 booklet is 80 percent pictures, however, and designed only for people using this software -- or perhaps a PC -- for the first time.

By this point I was getting pretty sick of looking at pictures of computers with smiling faces and reading the word "simple." I called Iomega in Ireland and the maker of my PC. Then I pulled down information from their respective web pages. After hours of altering the settings on my PC, the streamer finally worked. The solution involved a couple of arcane lines in one of my system files.

So why did the documentation that came with my new hardware fail to tell me what I needed to know? Why, when I buy any hardware these days, has the documentation shrunk into the equivalent of a children's picture book? Why has the industry ceased to even attempt to provide all the information you might need about your computer product?

The reason, I think, has to do with a minor revolution that has occurred in the computer industry during the last two years. PC users traditionally have been shielded from the complexity of their machines. That's because most of them once sat in offices with technical support departments responsible for fielding questions about why the printer doesn't print or why the modem behaves so unsociably. Documentation was comprehensive -- and written for technicians. If a technician could not solve a problem, he would contact an engineer at the manufacturer.

Today, more and more people use their computers at home or in small offices without technical support departments. This is a huge sector of the total market that computer companies ignore at their peril when it comes to instruction manuals.

One result is that many manufacturers have had to start filling the role of the in-company technical support department. And instead of swapping technical jargon, they find themselves posing questions such as, "Are you sure that your printer is connected to the power supply, sir?"

It is little wonder, then, that many manufacturers today promote their products for their ease of use and promise an alluringly simple set up.

As a result, I guess many manufacturers have dispensed with real manuals in the assumption that most customers will not read them, and that they will telephone as soon as a problem emerges. Manufacturers make the products as simple as possible in an effort to filter out the calls from people who have made the most basic errors.

If I were in England and therefore able to call a toll-free number every time I had a problem, this would be fine. But having to call Ireland from Moscow about details that should have been in my manual really sucks.

Robert Farish is the editor of Computer Business Russia. Fax: 929-9958; e-mail: