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...