You’re Not Alone If You Don’t Read User Manuals

Why RTFM when you can watch?

  • An increasing number of people don’t refer to the user manual and instead look for help in digital mediums like YouTube.
  • These digital avenues offer a more immersive experience, eradicating the need for the manual, suggest experts.
  • Going forward, VR and AR could emerge as the ideal interactive replacement for the manual. 
Person reading a user manual

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People are slowly but surely moving away from flipping through the user manuals when it comes to exploring and fixing their appliances. 

A survey by consumer electronics and appliances extended warranty service provider Allstate Protection Plans about people’s attitudes to appliance breakdowns, shared with Lifewire, found that only half of the respondents admit to picking up the manual when they need to learn how to use a certain function in an appliance or troubleshoot an issue. Interestingly, just as many people choose to head to YouTube or Google instead of referring to the user manual.

“I don’t remember using a user or operational manual for the past 10 years,” Vikrant Ludhra, cofounder of financial services startup Alternative Path, told Lifewire over email. “Nowadays, people research the product so deeply before buying that they are already aware of all the features/operation of the product, and in some cases even more so than the salesperson in the stores.”

Digital First

According to the survey, 78% of the respondents have had a large appliance die or stop working in the recent past. Of these broken appliances, a majority of them (52%) were originally priced over $500, while 20% set their owners back over $1000. Washing machines (28%) and refrigerators (25%) were the most common large appliance to fail, followed by the dryer (16%), dishwasher (14%), and cooktop (8%).

The survey, which queried over a thousand Americans, says that only half (50%) admitted to picking up the bundled user manual to understand their device or to try and get to the root of an issue. 

In today's time of instant noodles and 10-minute delivery, people don’t like to wait or put in a lot of effort to go through a user manual.

Interestingly, a sizable number of people prefer digital means such as YouTube (48%) and Google (47%), while many (30%) turn to the manufacturer’s website for guidance. The trend of digital-first extends to do-it-yourself repairs as well, with a majority (58%) choosing to ditch the user manual and instead look for instructions and tips on the internet.

“As proof that digital is the way forward, the survey showed that 80% of people 44 and under and 58% of over 45’s turn to either Google or YouTube first before opening the manual. Meaning that physical manuals are becoming less of a first choice and more of a backup,” noted SquareTrade in the summary of the survey.

Past Expiry

Ludhra admitted that sometimes he’s found the information on the web or YouTube “lacking.” But he added that these situations are rare and usually occur when the product has just launched. 

Also, despite staying away from user manuals, Ludhra said he isn’t wary of using Quick Start Guides, which have helped him get going especially with certain technology products that have steep learning curves. 

Gaurav Chandra, CTO of LGBTQ+ social network As You Are, reasons that the impetus for the eventual demise of the user manuals will be that they aren’t intuitive enough. 

"In today's time of instant noodles and 10-minute delivery, people don’t like to wait, or put in a lot of effort to go through a user manual," Chandra told Lifewire in an exchange over LinkedIn.

Person reading a manual, surrounded by computer hardware

Getty Images

Pointing to the fact that many product companies have themselves started putting up instructional videos, Chandra said these offer people the advantage of skipping to the end and actually seeing a working solution, whereas, with a user manual, people have to put in a lot more effort to flip through the manual to the appropriate page or section and then just hope they've followed the instructions completely. "It just takes a lot of time," asserted Chandra.

The user manual's reliance on illustrations, and instructional design, to provide instructions on how to use an appliance doesn't sit well with Vivek Khurana, Head of Engineering at BookMyFlex, either.

 In an email exchange with Lifewire, Khurana said modern technologies, such as video, do a much better job of transferring the know-how visually. He's of the opinion that it's a matter of when, and not if, multimedia's rich immersive learning experience will replace the printed manual.

Peering into his crystal ball, Khurana goes one step ahead and envisions eXtended Reality (XR) as the ultimate replacement of the user manual. "With AR and VR, people can simply scan the appliance, and the app loads an interactive manual for them to play with." 

Correction 05/20/2022: Updated the survey source in paragraph two at the source's request.

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