Not so long ago, you unboxed, say, your video recorder and, even if you marched ahead without reading a thing, you soon reached for the manual to help navigate a forest of buttons and a maze of menus. Fast forward to the 21st century and manuals have become dry, disclaimer-filled shadows of the glossy brochures that once shipped with our cameras, cars and washing machines. Monochrome diagrams have edged out prose and photographs, while websites have stepped in to fill the gap. In some cases, the manual has all but disappeared. When early adopters in Britain finally get a bite of Apple's delayed iPad next month, they'll find just a single sheet of paper inside the minimalist packaging. Printed on one side: an annotated image showing the device's buttons (all four of them). Turn over to read two paragraphs that say, in summary, "plug in and go".
The manual's demise is perhaps a cause for celebration. As innovations such as touch screens and haptic feedback make the most sophisticated gadgets some of the easiest to use – and when YouTube videos show babies flicking through digital photos as if it were second nature – instruction booklets increasingly seem as outmoded as the devices they used to accompany. If the phone in your pocket or the satnav on your windscreen needs an inch-thick manual, arguably it has failed. And, anyway, who needs a printed document when there's Google – a portal to more guidance and tutorials than could ever be squeezed into a black and white booklet.
But is a world without manuals so bright? Technical writers believe theirs is an art worth preserving. No surprise there, but others go further. Dr Mark Miodownik is an engineering lecturer at King's College London. Passionate about manuals (he presented a Radio 4 documentary on the subject in August), Miodownik says they are vital bridges between users, our devices and the people who make them. "Manuals should tell you how your device works, how to care for it and where it came from," he says. "Increasingly, manufacturers have become magicians who pull devices from hats. I talk to my students about programming and making and it's almost alien to them. If we can't see inside the hat, how are we going to inspire the magicians of the future?"
In the early 20th century, when the first radios, televisions and cars had buttons and levers that went "clunk", they were objects of aspiration. Manuals reflected their revolutionary place in the new home. Miodownik takes us back only as far as the 1960s for an example. The Kodak Brownie 44B was a descendant of the "box" Brownies that brought photography to the masses. Its colourful manual includes images of real people, including a tanned young couple by a swimming pool. Later, there are instructions for changing films and operating "spool latches" but also tips for taking better pictures. "Kodak was not only giving you a camera but also opening up a different way of life by helping you to become a photographer," Miodownik says.
Travelling further back in time, instruction manuals not only exposed the insides of our devices and inspired us to use as well as simply to operate them, but also offered instructions for their repair. On the back pages, there were price lists for spare parts. It's unthinkable now, when most of us could no sooner fix a digital camera than we could the Large Hadron Collider. "We used to have a much more emotional relationship with our gadgets that was mediated by our ability to look after them," Miodownik says. "Now, if something goes wrong, we take it in, get it put down by the vet and get another one without a second thought."
As the paper manual has withered there are signs of life on the internet. Even the magicians at Apple provide online guides. Elsewhere, hundreds of websites and forums have sprung up with how-to video clips and pages of instructions. One site, iFixit.com, even seeks to revive the age of repair in a bid to pull our gadgets out of the hat. It's launched what it calls a "Wikipedia, but for repair" online, which consists of step-by-step guides from a community of handy gadget hounds describe how to, for example, replace the screen on your Blackberry or dissect your iPod Nano. Fine, but you'll need the hand of a surgeon and a toolbox that includes a mini suction cup (for lifting your touchscreen), a tiny screwdriver and something called a spudger.
"People under 27 have never known life without the internet and so they behave differently when they get stuck," says Ellis Pratt at Cherryleaf, a technical communications firm based in Middlesex. "Even if there is a manual, you can put it in their hands and they'll still go straight to Google." But what if you're older than 27? When a senior colleague was recently convinced by his teenage children that he needed an iPhone, the shiny device sat in its shiny box for two days ("Sync it to iTunes? Can't I just make a telephone call?"). On the third day, he took it to a shop where a "nice young man" (definitely under 27) sorted him out. Gadgets might be more intuitive to some of us, but as they become more sophisticated, a decent user guide has become more, not less, important for people for whom reaching to Google is not a reflex – and we're not just talking about older people.
Ammonite Press is a small publishing house specialising in photography. Its Expanded Guide range of manuals for digital SLR cameras seeks to retrieve the user guide from the back of the drawer and put it back in the magazine rack. Think more Kodak Brownie than Apple iPad. Jon Sparks is a photographer who writes Ammonite's guides to Nikon cameras. "The official manuals aren't that bad but they are illustrated with drawings in a way that doesn't offer a lot of inspiration," he says. "We can take cameras into the field and use full colour photos. They tell you how to press every button or turn every dial; we tell you what they're for."
The prevalence of annotated diagrams in the modern manual is, some say, another symptom of its decline. As corporations enveloped the world, they had to disseminate information that crossed cultures (that couple in swimwear wouldn't be appropriate everywhere, for example). Exploded drawings illustrating gadgets – and anything from Ikea furniture to Airfix models – offer huge savings in translation fees, paper and printing costs. But it has come at the expense of prose. "In the early days, technical writers tried to communicate almost in a romantic way," Miodownik says. "Now it's unambiguous, plain speaking and increasingly peppered with pictures." Where words do exist they are increasingly devoted to health and safety warnings. "I bought a new pair of headphones recently and the first thing I read was a warning about them bursting into flames." Miodownik recalls. "The manufacturer spent all this time making a great object and then it started the relationship with me by saying it might catch fire."
Theresa Cameron is the international representative for the London-based Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators. A technical writer for 20 years, she has traced the history of the manual to a 4th century BC Babylonian clay tablet that details a step-by-step "guide to inducing dreams". She recognises the changing face of her craft but says it hasn't changed. "The art in our job is to put ourselves in the position of the end user and translate engineer speak," she says. "Engineers love everything they do and get very excited about every new feature. A classic example is the TV remote control. It has dozens of buttons but in reality, most of us just want to know how to switch it on and change channels."
For many of us, modern intuitive devices make the manual superfluous, but Cameron offers hope for her industry – and disenfranchised technophobes everywhere. "Too many product designers are still distant from users," she says. "Their products lack the accessibility and usability that would allow the people to behave instinctively without a manual. But there are still a lot of people who refer to a booklet before they use a new product. The manual has changed, but it's not dead."Reuse content