Why don’t people read manuals?

18 June, 2008 at 8:35 pm | Posted in Documentation | 1 Comment

People sometimes ask me why I bother writing manuals (and Help) when users don’t actually read them. As part of my MA I did a bit of investigating. I talked to a number of users and got some others to fill in a questionnaire. I also looked at a number of pieces of research in this area.

One of the things I discovered is that if people have had a bad experience in the past, where they have failed to find the information they were looking for, they are less inclined to refer to the documentation in the future: “It’ll be a waste of time looking there.”

Part of the problem can be knowing how to search for the information you need: one of the quotes I particularly liked was “To ask a question, one must know enough to know what is not known.”

Another reason is that people differ in their approach to learning something new. Some prefer to ask a colleague for assistance; others will just keep trying different things until they get it right. This approach is more likely to be adopted by younger users: older (or less computer literate) ones are more likely to panic if something unexpected happens or an error occurs.

However, I came to the conclusion that there are at least some people who would much rather read about how to do something, and they get very frustrated if the documentation provided doesn’t give them the guidance they need. So that’s my justification for continuing to try to provide the best documentation I can!


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