The death of the manual

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The average consumer doesn’t read manuals any more; even the most complicated device they get (such as a smartphone) will be expected to explain itself, not through words, but through affordances. (The classic example of an affordance is a door handle; but those can be done wrong too – watch how many doors have a u-shaped handle built in, yet are meant to be pushed.)

That’s partly because people don’t want to read before getting to play with their devices (play being a good thing; we learn about things through play), but also because we grew so used over the years to badly translated manuals that weren’t in Chinese but weren’t in English either. People puzzled it out.

So what is left for technical writing? Is it only for those spaces where people have to describe fiendishly complex processes occurring within banks, or for dismantling aircraft? Even the latter will be transformed by devices such as Google Glass, which might show you which item to unbolt first when you’re taking something apart, or what not to touch.

Technical writing – a field in which I once considered a job – is going to have to evolve in the consumer space to become something akin to design. When people don’t want writing, they’ll still want guidance, but in a more subtle form than it ever was before, because the devices we’re using are more complex – in terms of what they can do – than before. (Consider the tree of possibilities when using the iPhone’s Settings app, which has scores of possible paths, each of which will have an effect.)

If it’s not called “writing”, what will it be? That’s a puzzle for the profession. All I’m sure of is that the change is coming.

This keynote is delivered by Charles Arthur.