How to answer the telephone, according to the manual

I have a fancy new office telephone with a bajillion features (most of which I will never even find, much less use). The telephone comes with a helpful manual, explaining how to carry out various tasks. For example:

Answering a Call

Using the Handset:
Pick up the handset.

Cool, I was wondering about that.

Comments (47)
  1. Jim Lyon says:

    I’ve got the same phone, but those instructions don’t work. For some reason, after picking up the handset, I still need to hit the "Answer" button.

    I don’t know if this rates a bug report against the functionality, or the documentation.

  2. Karellen says:

    I’ve written documentation like that (for something else, not a phone) as part of a longer list of different ways to accomplish the same goal. So you’ve got (extending your example):

    Answering a call


    Using the handset

     Pick up the handset.

    Using a headset

     Press the button on the widget in the cord of your headset.

    Using the speaker

     Press the "speaker" button on the base unit.

    Via Bluetooth

     Press appropriate button on bluetooth device.

    If you miss out the "Using the handset" part, then some clueless waste of oxygen will think that there’s no way to answer a call with the handset, and that you have to answer with a headset, speaker, etc…, and complain.

    I’ve tried to put a "(duh!)" after the "blindingly obvious" method, but the QA team always insist it’s not "professional" enough and make me change it. Killjoys. So much for trying to share the joke with the customer.

  3. Someone You Know says:

    On my phone, there’s this bright blue button that says "Expand" on it. When it’s pressed, the screen lights up and displays the message:

    "Expand" is reserved for future development

    Your phone has features that you’ll never find? Mine has features that don’t even exist yet.

  4. Mark says:

    TBH, people often need reassurance that the basic functions work as expected.  Also, if you then go into complications like lifting the handset after pressing speakerphone, a reader will find it much easier if you previously introduced all the terminology.

  5. someone else says:

    Note: “Pick up the handset” is different from “Pick up the handset and press the answer button.” On phones where the answer button is also used for terminating the call and the phone answers automatically after being removed from the charger, this would be important.

  6. Theo Winters says:

    I don’t know, that seems pretty non-intuitive.

  7. J says:

    But what do you do once you’ve picked up the handset?  I hate manuals that leave me hanging.

  8. Falcon says:

    Going off-topic here, but I just can’t resist quoting this from an episode of Futurama:

    Fry: "One… jillion… dollars!"

    (audience gasps)

    Auctioneer: "Sir, that’s not a number"

    (audience gasps)

  9. Evan says:

    I one watched a safety video that came with the Segway (Dean Kamen’s ‘It’) that made it a point to explain that you should NOT ride it down a stairway.

  10. Chriso says:

    Maybe the “Dialing a number” chapter is more exciting? :D

  11. dave says:

    There’s an awful lot of computer software documentation for end users that is like that, especially if it’s a point’n’click user interface.

    "To fnurgle, click on the ‘fnurgle’ button."

    I find that stuff worse than useless; it answers questions I don’t need answering, and fails to answer the questions I do care about. (Like, what in the heck is fnurgling in the first place?)

  12. I run my own small software label, so I’m both the chief architect, the programmer, the technical writer and the help desktop. I started writing help files in functional manner ("To fnurgle, click on the ‘Fnurgle’ button."). Then I evolved to a more task oriented style ("To check the data, you need to fnurgle. In order to do that, open the X dialog and press the Fnurgle button"). Then I discovered that many of my users eventually discovered mos features themselves, specially if they were well designed, so I stopped writing help files and invested that time in designing and tweaking the use interface based on users’ needs. Now my users are happier than ever (and I spend even less time answering phone calls :-) ).

  13. David says:

    Seeing as Raymond has stated in the past that many of these posts are written and queued a year or so in advance, does this mean that the ‘new’ phone is really a year old by now?  To some of us, that isn’t so ‘new’ anymore.  Of course, I’m just nitpicking because I miss the nitpicker’s corner and the preemptive snarky comment ;-)

  14. Take back the nitpicker’s corner now! :-)

    PCNC – Party for the Comeback of the Nipicker’s Corner

  15. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    "To print a webpage

    In Internet Explorer, go to the webpage that you want to print.

    Click the arrow to the right of the Print button , and then click Print.

    Set the printing options you want, and then click Print."


  16. Sean Harlow says:

    You’d be surprised how needed this is.  I work in VoIP and once people realize their phone is attached to their computer somehow it magically becomes a mysterious box that must operate in some strange way.

    At least once a month I install a system and do a test call to a user who stares at the phone like they’ve never seen one before as it rings.  They then turn and ask me how they answer it.

    I can understand asking about outbound calls, with things like pressing 9, dialing 1, the area code, etc., but when it comes to incoming calls on an ordinary corded phone this is not rocket science.

    I guess it could just be me, but last time I checked phones like Polycom’s Soundpoint IP line aren’t particularly unusual looking….

  17. <3 snarks says:

    Maybe you’d have a more fulfilling experience here, Alexandre Grigoriev, if you just tell us how you want us to react when you post your snarks.  I’d be happy to chime in with "OH, RAYMOND HE GOT YOU GOOD!!!" next time if you’d just fill us in on what exactly you’re trying to accomplish.  Or can you direct us to the sign-up sheet for the "I hate Microsoft" fan club so that you know your snarks are having the desired effect?

    (Even though those printing instructions seem helpful enough)

  18. BCS says:

    Hmmm. Sounds like it was written by the same guy who wrote the help file for that software I was using last week: The help for the x27-j4 check box in the LBC dialog box said "turns on and off the x27-j4 feature of the LBC" Thank you very much, I could write a program to do your job!

  19. ::Wendy:: says:

    You still use desk phones in Microsoft US or was this a windows mobile?

  20. Since you said you write these things a year in advance, is it fair to say you’ve figured out how to use the rest of the phone as of this writing?

  21. Computers are much more complex and sophisticated devices than a telephone but they are never shipped with some kind of manual explaining what letter should I press on the keyboard when I want to write something smart.

  22. cyanna says:

    Everybody here old enough to remeber

    "Keyboard not detected. Press F1 to continue…" right?

    Well, that’s old history. The one that says "to press any key to boot from CD" is still alive and well. Just for fun, try pressing the space bar when booting from a Windows vista or 7 DVD. Or he F8 or the F10 (w7 only)…..

    Thre’s an old page with explanations of computer terms for newbies (

    Some of the best:

    FORWARD means passing along e-mail, usually without reading it.

    LINUX is a way of getting computers to work without software from Microsoft, the company that makes Windows.

    VIRUSES are programs that make your computer sick. People who are mentally deficient create viruses

  23. someone else says:

    @BCS: Apparently, someone did already:

  24. Gene says:

    Documentation assuming you know things is a big pet peeve of mine.  Granted, it’s probably pretty simple to figure out, but once you start playing the game of assumption you are highly apt to leave out something that may be obvious to you but is not obvious to a lot of people.  When in doubt, just put it in.  At best it will actually help someone, and at worst people on the lordly Internet will snark about it and move on.

  25. Phil W says:

    "I have always wished for my computer to be as easy to use as my telephone; my wish has come true because I can no longer figure out how to use my telephone".

    Bjarne Stroustrup, 1990 (and not to imply that Raymond couldn’t use all the features of his if he wanted to!)  

  26. Joseph Koss says:

    Step 1

    Pick up the handset.

    Safety tip: Lift with your legs, not your back.

    Step 2 (Cordless Handsets)

    Place end with the antenna next to your ear, with the other end near your mouth.

    Safety tip: Do not insert antenna into the ear canal.

    Step 2 (Wired Handsets)

    Place end without the wire next to your ear, with the other end near your mouth.

    Safety tip: Do not wrap the chord around your neck.

    Step 3

    Say "Hello"

    Safety tip: Do not speak too loudly.

  27. Jonathan says:

    We actually had an hour-long training on these phones. I remember thinking "If this thing needs training to use, I don’t want it". I didn’t go. Eventually, I figured it out (tip: dial the touchpad with a pen, not your finger!).

    They were terrible at first, but now I’ve grown to like them. Particularly, how you can dial directly from Office Communicator or Outlook – never remember a number again!

  28. Chris Lineker says:

    First rule of documentation: Assume the reader is an idiot, who has absolutely no clue what your device even does.

  29. Worf says:

    @dave: Yeah, I ran into that very problem earlier this week trying to figure out a feature. The only thing in the help on what the "fnurgle" checkbox did was a page on the dialog box that said "If you want to fnurgle, check the fnurgle box".

    As for the article, well, a lot of phones these days won’t answer unless you pick up the handset, and do something (open it, press a button, etc). I’m sure the young guys who never seen a landline before might need a little help on the basics.

  30. Greg Neilson says:

    Sometimes, especially with enterprise-y software, the help is deliberately non-helpful because then there’s the opportunity to sell training :)

  31. tomd says:

    @Chris: Actually the first rule is to evaluate your expected user base and their skill level. Write to idiots is what’s decided after said evaluation is done.

  32. bob says:

    Alexandre Grigoriev:

    "To print a webpage

    In Internet Explorer, go to the webpage that you want to print. "

    Okay done.

    "Click the arrow to the right of the Print button, and then click Print."

    I don’t see a print button, I only see a "prnt scrn" button. I see an arrow on a button marked Backspace to the right of this. I guess I will press/click that..

    "Set the printing options you want, and then click Print."

    Yes that’s what I want to do but you haven’t told me how.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I’m wondering if Raymond has actually just gotten his new office telephone or whether this blog post was recorded about a year ago ( In which case the phone isn’t so new anymore. Hmm.

  34. lurker says:

    How about a car analogy? My brand of car named after a certain nearby ringed planet has a switch next to the gear fnurgler which has two settings "Normal" and "Performance". Wondering what "Performance" mode does, I looked up the switch in the manual: <i>Turns performance mode on or off.</i>

  35. Brian Tkatch says:

    I remember reading the manuals for MS Access some time back. It came with three books. One explain what Access was. One explained all the details (reference). And one explained how to get things done. I read all three, then i knew what it was, how to approach the overall picture, and how to deal with the details.

    A phone usually only has the detailed explanations. The overall documentation, is ignored under the assumption that the user know what a phone is. But the details need to be explained. Instead of also deciding what needs to be explained, the documenter turns into a drone and explains everything.

  36. Mark says:

    Hey, I wonder if Raymond’s phone isn’t so new anymore, or he just wrote this!

  37. DysgraphicProgrammer says:

    I have a phone on my desk at work. I never use it. I’m don’t even know how to make a call. I know it works because I occasionally get calls from recruiters and other phone spammers.

    Everyone here uses email instead. The huge advantage is that it leaves a ‘paper’ trail so you can figure out at stasis report time what you have been up to that week. Also, it can be ignored until the receiver is ready to interrupted.  

    If we need to get immediate attention we have an IM system. It also saves a paper trail, and is much better for passing command lines or dir paths then any voice based system.

  38. iReadBeforePosting says:

    Please, can we have at least one more post about how Raymond’s phone might not be new anymore because he queues his posts a year or more in advance? Please?


    "I looked up the switch in the manual: <i>Turns performance mode on or off.</i>"

    Maybe you should look up Performance Mode instead of the performance Mode Switch. <RimShot />

  39. James Schend says:

    Dave: the worst is documentation that assumes that the application is completely 100% bug-free.

    Problem: My spam filter isn’t working.

    Solution: Make sure the "Spam Filter" checkbox in Options is checked.

    I came across that exact example a couple years ago. I don’t think the term "isn’t working" implies "isn’t turned on."

  40. David Brooks says:

    The Stroustrup quip (Phil W, above) was made in 1990, and he himself says "I’m sure the sentiment wasn’t original, and probably not even the overall phrasing; someone must have thought of that before me."

    Baffling "feature-rich" phones are nothing new.

  41. J says:

    "Despite the fact that they have a large (at least 320×200) LCD screen, 6 soft-buttons, up-down scroll button, and a "Help" button (hah!) and undoubtedly enough computing power to run Windows 95…"

    My company designed a high-end phone to compete with that one, and the marketing guy who designed the look just ripped off the design of that phone (or one just like it), including the help button.  I managed to convince the team that it was idiotic to design a phone from the ground up to require a physical help button on the phone, especially since we were using a good sized full-color display that clearly could support an intuitive UI.  We had something pretty good until the project got canned for reasons outside our control.

  42. Jerry says:

    Must be the US Version of the manual, check if there is a chapter with special warnings.

    Something like "Hot coffee is hot" or "Dont dry your dog in the microwave" :-)

  43. Andres says:

    @David: That’s why it’s called The Old New Thing. When he talks about a new thing, you know it really means old.

  44. James Schend says:

    Not naming any names to follow house rules, but our office VOIP phones from large telecommunications company have the worst usability of any device I’ve ever seen.

    Despite the fact that they have a large (at least 320×200) LCD screen, 6 soft-buttons, up-down scroll button, and a "Help" button (hah!) and undoubtedly enough computing power to run Windows 95… I’m far less capable of hosting a conference call with this thing than I was the simple beige phones with 15 buttons we used at my last workplace.

    For having that many computer-like features, the phone is sure bone-stupid. For example, if you attempt to call someone back using their saved Caller ID number, the phone is too dumb to dial 9 first. Oh, and you also can’t dial a new number and show the Caller ID on the same screen, which means I’m actually *writing down* a phone number off the screen of my phone, then dialing it back in.


  45. J. Peterson says:

    In the pre-history of the cell phones, I saw somebody from the computer operations center bring a lunchbox sized "mobile" phone to an event.  They were very proud of being the keeper of this fancy new gadget.  Until it started to ring…and they realized they had no idea what button to push to answer it.

  46. er3s says:

    You think it’s silly and I think it’s silly, but think about common sense and warning labels.  Remember that Woman who sued McDonald’s because she burnt herself on hot coffee, we now have "Caution HOT!" written on the cup.

  47. hrm says:


    Bad example.  

    The woman didn’t sue McDonalds because she "burnt herself" making it sound like she got a mild reddening of the skin and was just looking to sue someone.

    She sued McDonalds because the coffee was SO HOT that when it spilled it gave her THIRD DEGREE BURNS over 6% of her body.  She needed skin grafts.

    Please get your facts straight in the future.

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