Random Disconnected Diatribes of a p&p Documentation Engineer
It's interesting (at least, I think so) how the issues we face here at p&p in creating useful and practical guidance are almost exactly mirrored in other industries and technologies. OK, so the world is becoming more complicated, as are all the increasingly sophisticated gadgets that it seems we can no longer survive without. Yet, in a large majority of cases, guidance on how to use these wonderful examples of modern technology is often - to say the least - less than useful.
I suppose some of this rumination is due to a conversation I had a week or so ago with a friend who is, like me (and, I suspect, like most of the male half of the population) a gadget freak. He'd just acquired a new digital camera; and as we sat musing on the meaning of life, the universe, and an exceptionally excellent Italian meal, told me about how difficult he is finding learning all the ins and out of operating it. Unlike a lot of snappers, he's not happy just to set it to "automatic everything", and wants to explore the features. But the 80 pages of explanation in the manual seem to hinder rather than guide.
My own aging but reasonably well featured camera is an Olympus, whereas his is a Panasonic. I chose the Olympus because I reckon that the ideal people to make a camera are camera makers, not people whose expertise is televisions and other assorted electronic stuff. Yet a fresh perusal of the manual for my camera reveals much the same problems as he is having. The issue is that the manuals are written as documentation rather than guidance. They patiently describe how to take the camera out of the box and put batteries in, how to turn it on, and even show you pictures of a USB cable and a memory card in case you've never seen one before.
But the rest of the book is pretty much just a series of chapters, one for each of the options that pops up when you press the "Menu" button. Rather like software documentation that has a chapter for the File menu commands, a chapter for the Edit menu commands, and so on. That's fine if you know that, for example, changing the white balance involves selecting an option from a third-level submenu of the Options menu. Or creating a panoramic scene means you need to make two settings on the Camera menu and one on the Scene menu. But not exactly helpful when you just want to do something. And, of course, each option is often just a link to another page that contains more information. As my friend pointed out, trying to learn how it works involves more page-turning and sticky notes than actual reading.
And I can confirm the problems that this creates. At a wedding some months ago, I'd been taking pictures most of the day using the zoom so my head didn't appear in the middle of all the official photographer's pictures, and with the automatic image stabilizer turned on. Later in the evening, during an off-the-cuff Karaoke session, the ten year old bridesmaid succumbed to pressure from the family and guests and sang (very beautifully) a well known Whitney Houston song. Of course, I immediately grabbed the camera, set it to Movie mode, and filmed her performance - promising to put the result on a DVD for her parents.
But when I got home and downloaded it from the camera, I discovered there was wonderful video but no sound. Why? Well, right at the bottom of page 32 of the manual where it describes the options on the Camera menu is a single line that explains how the camera will not record sound when the image stabilizer is enabled. So I end up looking a bit of an idiot, just because I didn't memorize the entire manual for the camera. And what's even more annoying is that the makers are well aware that this will result in lots of people looking like idiots, but they don't think it's important enough to shout about. I would have said that the second line of the "Basic Functions" topic about shooting movies, after the one that says "Set the camera mode to Movie" should be (in large bold letters) "and turn off image stabilization if you want sound."
But I suppose I shouldn't complain because, as I found out after re-reading the manual, the camera has a series of options on the Scene menu - such as Portrait, Sport, Night Scene, Fireworks, Behind Glass, and even Under Water - though, sadly, there's none for movies. However, each one sets the appropriate functions of the camera automatically. It's all rather like the scenario-based software guidance we aim to offer here at p&p (though we've so far omitted topics such as "Configuring ASP.NET Authentication Under Water").
So why doesn't the manual start off with descriptions of these scenarios, together with a list of the settings each one affects? That way you would be able to see which settings are related to different outcomes, and more easily grasp what you need to do if you want to achieve some specific result. At this point, I wandered over to the Olympus website and glanced through the downloadable manuals for the more recent versions of my camera. It's clear to see that they realized the problems people were having. The latest manuals start with sections such as "Shooting, Playback, and Erasing" and "Using Shooting Modes"; only later followed by "Menus for Playback, Editing, and Printing Functions".
And maybe, if I upgrade to the latest model, I'll discover that is has scene settings for really useful scenarios such as "Small Garden Birds That Won't Keep Still From A Long Way Away", "Trains Going Very Fast When You Weren't Quite Ready", "Rock Bands Obscured By Smoke And Flashing Lights From The Back Row Of The Auditorium", and - of course - "Movie When You Forgot To Turn Off Image Stabilization". Or perhaps I'll still need to memorize the entire manual...
You'd think that going minimalist in terms of interior design would be easy. Just decide which three items you want to keep in each room, and throw the rest away. In fact, if you are unfortunate enough to subject yourself to my weekly ramblings, you'll probably recall that we are in the process of going minimalist in our lounge at the moment. We've tossed out the old gas fire and surround and ordered a modern remote controlled "rectangular sheet of black glass" fire that pretends to be a real one using some surreal combination of video, audio, computing power, and pulsating LEDs.
Of course, the multitude of wires for the TV that were hidden behind the fire surround were then nakedly on view, and also emerged just above the skirting board exactly where there used to be a cupboard, but now there wouldn't be. So I had to pull them all out, dig some fresh holes, and put them back in. But there was no point putting the same ones back because most were incompatible with an even remotely modern TV, and ours was well past its expected lifespan. So the old TV went off to our son's house to radically upgrade his Xbox gaming experience and we got a new TV. Now we have nineteen wires buried in the wall, one for each of the sockets on the back of the new TV.
And while we were looking at TVs, my wife espied a very reasonably priced modern black glass table to replace the very decrepit one we have now. So that's the three things for the lounge and the whole minimalist thing is well under way. All I needed was a week to slap some paint on the walls, and a series of delivery vans to arrive. And that's when I discovered that, as we are so often told, we don't actually make anything here in Britain any more.
Mind you, we're not alone in that respect. I remember watching a Simpsons episode where Homer and Marg were wandering around the kitchen department of a large store and Marg remarked that everything she looked at was made in some distant country. "Don't we actually make anything in America these days?" she asked; to which Homer replied - waving a wooden meat tenderizing mallet - "This says 'Made in the USA'". At which point the head fell off it.
So when the new table arrived, I wasn't surprised to see it has a label underneath saying "Made in China". As have the new black chrome curtain poles my wife selected to match the new minimalist decor. And as I was connecting up the TV, finding a "Made in China" label on the back did not seem unusual. Though it was somewhat perturbing to discover that, on that back of the fire we ordered from "British Fire Manufacturers" (who advertise that they are "so confident of the quality of the components and our closely controlled manufacturing process that we offer a full one year guarantee") is a label saying - you guessed it - "Made in China".
But I suppose we expect most electrical consumer goods to be made in China now anyway. The laptop I'm typing this on has a "Made in China" label underneath. The mouse I'm using says "Designed in Redmond USA" on it, but in smaller letters underneath admits that it, too, was made in China. When I opened the broken Media Center box last week, everything inside had a "Made in China" label. Except for the case itself, which it says it was made in Indonesia.
I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, especially if you keep up with the news and heard about the factory in Shenzhen in southern China that covers 200 square miles and employs 8 million people (or something like that). And it's not like everything that comes from China is poor quality. They make all the iPads and iPhones there, and they are quite respectable devices. Or so I'm told - being a 'Softie I wouldn't actually know, of course.
But what must be galling for them is that they feel they need to hide the fact by putting very small "Made in China" labels on the back of stuff. The hi-fi system I bought 30+ years ago (and which is still the main audio system we use for the Media Center, the DVD player, the CD player, and the TV) proudly displays large "Made in Japan" signs right there on the front panel. Like they are proud to say so. And, at least in this case, they probably are. I suspect that my computers, TV, mobile phone, and all the other more recent hi-tech stuff in our house will struggle to survive even a fraction of that time - as I discovered last week...
We had one of those disastrous spells here at chez Derbyshire a couple of weeks back. It started with trying to switch our mobile phone contracts from one supplier to another, and ended with what seems like half of the hi-tech equipment in our house deciding it had, with disappointing lack of excitement, reached the end of its useful working life.
On the Thursday, I had already spent yet another wasted hour on the phone to an incompetent customer disservice department trying to get two SIM cards to work in our phones with the numbers transferred from our previous supplier. I guess it didn't help that the previous supplier seems to have given me transfer authorization codes for somebody else's numbers, or that the new supplier's sales department had made up some non-existent email address for me and then emailed my user name and password to it.
So, in a somewhat grumpy mood, I tossed the ingredients for a nice soothing milky coffee into the microwave and pressed "Go". Except nothing happened. No flashing lights, no whirring noises, no turntabular revolution. Not even a flash or loud bang to provide a satisfying indication that the twelve year old contraption we bought second hand from a friend was ready to go and meet the God Of Recycling.
Then in the evening of the same day that the microwave waved goodbye to the world, and after spending fruitless hours at work trying to log onto our Azure test account, I moodily flopped down in front of the TV and pressed the big red button. And was greeted by a screen full of wavy lines. It seems that the video card in the Media Center box had had enough and was no longer going to translate the ones and zeros coming from the hard disk into anything resembling a TV picture. Yet there was no satisfying puff of blue smoke, or crackling noise from incinerated components, or even a faint smell of burning.
It never used to be like that. I remember as a kid being in my Dad's Morris Minor on the way to Gloucester when it reached its MTBF and exploded with a very loud bang, emitting clouds of oily smoke and depositing an assortment of pieces of former engine all over the road. Yet when my wife's car broke down some months ago, all that happened was a light came on the dashboard and it gently cruised to a halt.
And if your washing machine broke in those days, it was accompanied by the sounds of somebody bashing saucepans together and a rapidly expanding pool of soapy water on the floor. Now it just displays some indecipherable "Error Code" in the display and grumpily sits looking at you with no intention of doing anything until you phone an approved (quoting from the manual) "domestic appliance maintenance and repair operative".
This is a worrying trend. If you opened the bonnet/hood of your car and discovered a molten mass of connecting rods and melted spark plugs, you could take an educated guess that something was wrong with the engine. Now you have to get a (very expensive) specialist in vehicle electronics to connect your car to a computer in some foreign country to discover that the fuel stabilization flutter compensation valve needs replacing.
And it's interesting that, even though we are surrounded by stuff that is supposed to free us from the drudgery of all those day-to-day tasks, we seem to have even less free time than our parents and grandparents. Is it because we spend so much time trying to figure out which hi-tech devices have decided to break down this week, and getting them fixed or replaced? It says something for adopting an Amish lifestyle.
Meanwhile, perhaps manufacturers should be compelled include a small firework in every electrical device that is ignited when any of the warning lights come on so you know that something has definitely gone wrong. And maybe a short audio file of clanging and grinding noises. It would certainly make having to have stuff mended (or, more likely, replaced with a new one) a bit less dull.
Of course, this would also apply to computers. Your laptop would satisfyingly dissolve in a cloud of black smoke when the hard disk died, or your server would produce an acrid smell of burning and light up the server room with exploding stars that would make it easy to track down the faulty one. We could even extend it to software. Instead of a boring error dialog, how about a very loud siren and flashing "DANGER" in big red letters all over the screen like you see in the movies. Maybe even an on-screen countdown to self destruct. It would certainly make being a computer programmer seem like a lot more interesting job.
If you have a few minutes to spare, why not pay a visit to the UK Advisory Network website? How could you resist reading about how it is "promoting closer working between Government and the private sector", and "consists of members with essential knowledge and invaluable expertise who have completed a robust application process"? Oh, and by the way, that click just cost £11.78 (around $15).
Yes, you'll probably be amazed to learn it cost the UK Government that much for every visitor. And you thought using the Web was a way to reduce costs! They could probably have photo-copied the list of members who have completed a robust application process and sent it by snail mail for less. Or, and here's a shocking thought, got the robust members to set up their own website and pay for it. No doubt they charge an admirable fee for their expert advice that would easily cover it.
And here's a much more exciting site for you to try: http://www.lovechips.co.uk/. Check out the Chip-O-Vision video, or read the Chip Papers. Yes, a whole site devoted to how wonderful chips (as in fish 'n' chips, not flat things that come in bags) are. Then scroll to the bottom to discover that the site is run by "The Potato Council" - what used to be the Potato Marketing Board until then realized they needed a fancy new name - which is "a division of the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHBD)". In other words, the Government.
There are plenty more as well. In fact, according to a recent newspaper report, there are 820 of them. And a review of 46 out of the 820 revealed that the cost of building just these was £94 million ($140 million), plus staff costs of another £32 million ($48 million). Mind you, according to the report they plan to close down around 600 of the so called "vanity sites" to save money and help balance the national budget. But what's even more amazing is that they already closed down 907 - there used to be over 1,700 of them! I wonder if they'll publish a full list of the ones that are left so I can go and see what else they've been spending our tax on before they all disappear. Is it any wonder that the country has run out of money?
Maybe I need to give up my job and go back to building websites. I reckon I could knock up a site like Love Chips for that money, and still turn a reasonable profit. Or perhaps I can persuade my bosses here at p&p that the next project should be a White Paper on "How To Build A Website For Less Than Three Million Dollars"...