Archive for Sunday, June 30, 2002

Owner’s manual isn’t required reading

June 30, 2002

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The topic of this column is a recent Washington Post story stating that manufacturers of appliances, computers, cars, etc. want to know why Americans don't read their owners' manuals.

WARNING: THIS COLUMN IS INTENDED FOR READING PURPOSES ONLY. DO NOT USE THIS COLUMN AS A TOURNIQUET.

One big reason why consumers don't read manuals is that the typical manual starts out with 15 to 25 pages of warnings, informing you of numerous highly unlikely ways in which you could use the product to injure or kill yourself.

WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS COLUMN WHILE WATER-SKIING. DO NOT SET FIRE TO THIS COLUMN IN A ROOM FILLED WITH HYDROGEN.

The typical consumer's reaction to these warnings is: "What kind of moron would do THAT?"

The correct answer to this question is: "A wealthy moron." Because the reason these warnings exist is that somewhere, some time, some consumer with the IQ of a radish actually DID one of these bizarre things, and got a lawyer, and sued, and a jury made up of people whose understanding of economics is based entirely on grocery coupons decided, what the heck, $300 million sounds about right, but let's not tell the judge right away because first we should order a pizza.

So every year there are more huge product-liability awards, and every year manufacturers have to put more warnings in the owners' manuals, and every year the radish-brains come up with newer, more-innovative ways to injure themselves. There will come a day when every product you buy will come with an actual living lawyer inside the box, sealed in plastic; as soon as you break the seal, the lawyer will emerge and start preparing your product-liability lawsuit. (This system is feasible because product-liability lawyers are spore-based organisms who can survive for years without air.)

Another reason why consumers don't read manuals is that products today have TOO MANY FEATURES. (I know, I know, I've complained about this before. So sue me.) We and when I saw "we," I am speaking for every human being in the world do not want a lot of features. In fact, for most products, we really want only two features: the "on" feature, and the "off" feature.

An example of a feature that we do not want is "picture in picture." This feature allows you to watch one channel on most of your TV screen, while another channel appears in a little box in the corner. The salesman always makes a big deal out of "picture in picture," and the manual always devotes pages to how you use it.

Except you don't use it. I have never seen any actual human consumer use the "picture in picture" feature, because (a) nobody remembers how it works; (b) it's annoying to have two pictures on the screen; and (c) it's hard enough to find ONE thing on TV you want to watch.

The third reason why consumers don't read manuals is that many consumers are men, and we men would no more read a manual than we would ask directions, because this would be an admission that the person who wrote the manual has a bigger ... OK, a bigger grasp of technology than we do. We men would rather hook up our new DVD player in such a way that it ignites the DVDs and shoots them across the room like small flaming UFOs than admit that the manual-writer possesses a more manly technological manhood than we do.

And then there are some people who simply do not NEED manuals. I refer here to my son, who, like many young people, can immediately grasp how to operate any technological object, no matter how complex. Give my son 15 minutes in the space shuttle, and he will figure out not only how to launch it into orbit, but also how to make it play really hideous "hip-hop" music loud enough to shatter passing asteroids. (And please do not tell me that sound does not travel through space. "Hip-hop" music travels through EVERYTHING).

So what does all this mean? It means that if manufacturers want us to read their manuals, they need to take a few simple, common-sense steps: (1) Deport all the product-liability lawyers to Iraq; (2) Get rid of "picture in picture"; (3) Include nothing in the manual except simple, clear, minimal directions, printed on photographs of tennis star Anna Kournikova naked. These steps will greatly improve consumer knowledge, and reduce unfortunate mishaps. You may now place this column over the wound.

(NOTE TO MANUFACTURERS: Make sure it really IS Anna Kournikova, or you will be sued.)




Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.

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