Reading other people’s manuals

Manuals for a Samsung washer and dryerI’ve been a technical writer for over 30 years, and I admit that I don’t always read the manual. If a product is well-designed, I can figure out how to use it on my own. When I get stuck, or if it requires complicated assembly or setup, I definitely read the manual.

When I do read the manual, I look at it with a critical eye. How well does it tell me what to do? Is it easy to understand? Can I trust that what it says is correct?

We recently bought a new Samsung washing machine and dryer. Since I had to show other members of our family how to use these devices, I decided to read the manuals first. Here are my impressions about them.

Installation Instructions

We had these appliances professionally installed because my appliance installation days are over. I looked at the installation instructions anyway to see how well they were written and illustrated. I find the illustrations especially important because unclear illustrations have messed me up before. (And you don’t want to mess up when installing something that uses gas.)

I felt the installation instructions were clear and would be easy for someone with expertise in installing appliances to follow. They indicated which tools are needed and marked warnings with appropriate icons. As a user, I also found the installation instructions helpful. For example, I learned that the dryer door can be configured to open from the left or the right. If we ever needed to change the door, that’s good information to know.

The illustrations were clear and focused on the key areas, but they were a little small.

Installation illustration from a Samsung washing machine manual
And who would drain their laundry water into a beautiful bathroom sink? (Image by Samsung)

Instead of putting the illustrations in the margins, it would have been better if they had them go across the page, or if they printed their manual on a bigger page size like US Letter (8.5 x 11 inches). (We’re talking about a washing machine, not a Galaxy smartphone. They have the room to print a bigger manual.)

So What Model Do I Have Again?

To save on printing costs, companies normally cover several models in the same guide. This is understandable to me as a technical writer but confusing to me as a user. Consider the following illustration:

Example of showing several models in the same illustration.
What’s the difference between “Wrinkle Away” and “Wrinkle Release”? (Image by Samsung)

Can you tell between the three versions of the front panel which model you have? Why does the top drawing have numbered callouts and the others don’t? What if I find that a feature I wanted is on a different model from the one I bought? Isn’t the time for upsell before you make the purchase? (Although you can usually download product manuals from company websites before you buy.)

This is the problem with covering multiple models in the same manual — it can confuse and frustrate customers. Where possible, it’s better to produce separate manuals for each model, or produce a manual that covers common features that apply to all models and supplements or online information that cover each specific model.

And About Those Other Languages…

Every company I’ve worked at translates their manuals. I’ve seen what my writing looks like in Japanese.

Most companies produce separate manuals for each language, while others (mostly for consumer products) include several languages in the same document. Again, this saves money.

Usually, multi-lingual guides have a table of contents on the front cover listing the languages in their native names, like français and español. The Samsung manuals include English, French, and Spanish, but they don’t have that table of contents on the front cover. I’m used to multi-lingual manuals, so I assumed that a manual that thick would have multiple languages. Still, a list of included languages on the front cover would have been helpful.

Useful Information that Counts

It may seem that I’m being hard on Samsung’s manuals. However, I did find them useful, and they included a lot of features I liked. They had complete troubleshooting information, a table of temperatures and load sizes supported by the different cycles, and a list of those cryptic American Cleaning Institute fabric care symbols. They also put a QR code you can scan with a smartphone for online videos and forums. This provides a helpful bridge between print and online information. I was able to learn enough from the manuals to use the appliances.

The true test of user manuals is how well it shows customers how to use the product. I felt that for the most part, Samsung did this well.