Improving automakers' owner manuals

Do you know anybody who reads auto manuals? If you know me, you do.

Why do I do this?

  • I review cars (one review appears on this blog every second week) and I like to get my own answers to questions on the technology I’m using.
  • I’m a longtime technical writer. I both produce documentation and scan other people’s work for ideas I can put into my own products. Those auto manuals tend to be professionally produced, and I’ve learned a few things from documentation for both ordinary and high-end makes and models.

Unfortunately, those manuals often suffer shortcomings that irk me, and I need to vent just a little.

This blog post isn’t a rant. It’s meant as constructive criticism. I like most of the vehicles I’ve driven and I wish automakers apply the same level of polish to their documents that they do to their cars, trucks and SUVs. I thought about this during one of my auto reviews and the topic just flowed into the keyboard. From there, it made the leap to this blog post.

(Of course, if any companies want to contract with me to produce documentation, let me know.)

So, automakers, here’s how to apply polish to your manuals.

Focus on the index

Many owners manuals are massive, so I would expect their indexes to match. Sometimes they do, but I’ve been shocked to find indexes consisting of a measly 10 or 20 pages in manuals that stretch over 600 pages total.

Most manuals feature pictures towards the beginning that show things like the drivers’ seat, cabin, engine and so forth. Parts in these pictures are labeled using numbers, which lead to labels and page numbers in a legend on the same page. I suspect these front-of-the-book pictures cover most questions people have. People who aren’t technical writers and auto reviewers, anyway…

So what should go in the index? I’m glad you asked….

Put marketing terms in the index

Automakers frequently trumpet select features in their marketing materials. I get it: those features help companies differentiate their products. If people want to know the technical details about those features, the index must tell readers where in a manual to find out more.

Include different versions of the same terms

Even when automakers cover all the features in a vehicle, they need to consider how readers of their manuals might look for the feature.

For instance, “blind-spot monitoring” might be sought under terms like “sensors,” “mirrors” or “warning lights” since all these things play a part in the system.

(In case you’re wondering, indexing manuals and other types of books is a craft. I should know.)

Reconsider optical discs as manuals

Some automakers put their manuals on DVDs. This idea is so ten years ago.

Many people buy computers that don’t have digital disk drives. Many more bypass computers entirely, relying on tablets as their main computing devices.

I’m not against digital documentation. Far from it. I try to run a paperless office. I simply don’t use DVDs or CDs anymore, and I’m far from alone in this.

Check English usage

Maybe it’s the stickler in me, but when I drive a vehicle that retails for tens of thousands of dollars, I expect flawless English in the owner’s manual. On a few unfortunate occasions, I’ve seen sentence structure issues, usage flaws, even spelling mistakes.

No matter how good you might think the technical documentation team is, it’s incomplete without a great editor.

The future of auto documentation

The future? It’s digital, of course. (Is my bias showing?)

I’ve downloaded PDFs of manuals during reviews. Since they’re searchable, I don’t even need the index – I can simply search the PDF for the concepts I want to learn about.

PDFs aren’t usually much use on the go, however. That’s why mobile applications will likely prove most useful to drivers of the future. Sizeable manuals may still clog glove compartments, but they’ll also fit easily in an app on the smartphones that most car owners are also likely to own.

Multipurpose apps may also let people do a lot of everyday useful things. (No, reading manuals is not an everyday activity, even for me.) Imagine setting a route for the navigation system and sending it to your car, then having the route appear on the car’s screen when you start it up. You could also check that the car is locked after you leave it in a massive parking lot. That app could help you find the car when you need to return to it.

In case you’re wondering, all these activities are available on select autos you can buy today.

Back to documentation. Are you wondering about something on your car? Point a phone’s camera at it. The automaker’s app will recognize it and take you to any pertinent documentation without your even needing to know what the thing is called. (Yes, this feature also exists on certain makes.)

No matter what form documentation takes, the team that assembles it has to include writers, illustrators, layout experts, indexers and editors. It will just be easier than ever to access. The humble print book will live with us indefinitely, but its role in certain areas will fade. And that’s as it should be.

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