New book could revolutionise frustrating user manuals

Dr Stephen Crabbe

Dr Stephen Crabbe

A new book which aims to take the frustration out of understanding user manuals has been published by an academic from the University of Portsmouth.

Dr Stephen Crabbe, a Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and Translation, was so fed up of seeing poorly written user manuals, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

He said: “If you go online and type in the words ‘user manual’ and ‘frustration’, you just see pages and pages of complaints from people who can’t understand them. They can be infuriating for the consumer, especially if you have just spent a lot of money buying a new high-end product and are not particularly tech-savvy.

“I think there is this impression that people don’t really read them, but they do. They just don’t read them like novels – from start to finish. People often read a user manual when they have a problem and want to find out what to do, which means they just dip into the relevant section. You wouldn’t settle down in your favourite chair in front of the fireplace with a glass of something and a user manual.”

Dr Crabbe has created controlled language rules for companies to adopt or adapt to their needs. These rules control the grammar and vocabulary that the technical writers can use to help make the information in the user manuals easier to understand.

He said: “People with low literacy or English language competency, for example, might not understand that ‘tap’, ‘strike’, ‘type’, ‘press’ and ‘punch’ all mean the same thing when using them to describe touching a button on a keyboard. So, one of the rules in my book restricts the use of different words to mean the same thing, or the same word to mean different things.”

The book also provides companies with a step-by-step description of how to trial their new controlled language rules before implementing them with their technical writers.

He said: “I’d really urge companies to use my book. User manuals should be written in plain English that consumers can understand. It can help them get the most out of the products they buy, reduce the need for phone calls to customer support, and even reduce the risk of physical injury to the consumer or damage to the product and resultant litigation. It’s a no-brainer.”

“It’s crazy that so many devices are now created for our convenience, yet the documents that explain how to use them can be so impenetrable.”

Dr Crabbe’s book Controlling Language in Industry: Controlled Languages for Technical Documents was published last week.

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