Brian Parks


How to read a Manual

Far more often than I care to recall, I feel as though people don't read manuals. I think this is due either to the feeling that the author of a manual is somehow talking down to us or the feeling that needing to read the manual somehow makes us less of a person. Basically, it's due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of a manual.

Most often, we see a manual as a set of instructions telling us (very condescendingly) a series of steps to perform in a very specific order that we must complete before we are allowed to engage in the activity for which we actually purchased (or received) the item in question. That is, the manual is an obstacle.

However, most manuals are designed to be resources and, seen in this light, the manual becomes a tool and not simply another bit of packaging that stands between us and enjoyment. Seen in this light, there is actually a reason to keep the manual around filed away for reference. Of course, if we don't know what's in the manual, then all it is doing filed away is collecting dust and taking up space. To that end, I have put together the following process for reading a manual, so that all manuals you might come in contact with in the future might survive past day one:

  1. When unpacking the item, find the manual first and set it aside. If there is a "quick start guide", open it fully near your workspace just in case you need to reference it.
  2. Skim the "quick start guide". Your purpose in doing so is to build a "table of contents" of sorts, so that if you run into an issue or aren't sure what to do next, you know where to look in the "quick start guide" or full manual.
  3. Begin assembling or configuring the item. Reference the "quick start guide" as needed.
  4. Once you have the item assembled and/or configured, put the manual in your "to read" pile (and, eventually, read it).
  5. Read the manual as your leisure, cover to cover, but at a very high level. Don't try to memorize it. Your purpose in reading the entire manual is (a) to build a mental table of contents and (b) to reassure yourself that, in the event you run into any issue or have any question, the answer is very likely to be in the manual.
  6. In the future, when you encounter a problem or question with the item, your first line of defense should be the manual. You've read it cover to cover and are therefore fairly confident that the answer will be in the manual. All you need to do is consult your mental table of contents (and possibly the real one if your manual has one), find the answer, and be done reasonably quickly.

Naturally, these steps are all predicated on the assumption that you have a manual and it was written in a way that makes it worth reading and referencing. That, however, is a topic for another post.