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Phones are more powerful and complicated than ever, but while your 1990s handset came with a detailed instruction booklet, today's top-of-the-range smartphone expects you to work it all out for yourself. Michael Passingham laments the demise of the printed manual
Many children of the 70s, 80s and 90s will fondly recall the days when every game you bought came with a 50-page instruction manual detailing every element of the backstory, controls and onscreen display. Some even came with blank pages for you to write notes. All this made for great reading on the way home from the game shop, but I have to admit that nowadays such printed manuals are a waste of space, which is why most current games simply come with a slim pamphlet telling you to visit the website for more information.
As far as games are concerned, this makes sense. The first 20 minutes are usually an extended tutorial anyway. Where the lack of a manual doesn't make sense is with modern consumer technology. It's more complex than ever, in case you hadn't noticed, and it's a bit much to expect people to work out iOS, Android or Windows Phone from scratch when even a Nokia 3210 came with a decent manual back in 1998.
Tech firms seem to skew all their efforts towards the younger markets but completely fail the older generations who didn't grow up in a world dominated by swiping on touchscreens and sliding through Facebook.
This problem was starkly illustrated at Christmas when I gave my 63-year-old mother an Android-powered Samsung smartphone. What little paper there was in the box gave almost no information about how to use the phone effectively. This put her off owning a smartphone, and it was only because I was chez parents for a week that I was able to guide her through those terrifying first few days as she got to grips with a pocket computer entirely from scratch.
My mum wasn't even trying to do anything advanced. One feature unique to Samsung phones is the way in which you answer an incoming call. You have to place your thumb within the green telephone symbol and slide it out until the phone is answered. Of course, the first time my dear sweet mother received a call on her device was when she was out and about, without me there to explain to her what was going on. An on-screen animation perhaps suggests you have to slide your thumb but to someone not familiar with sliding gestures, this means nothing. There were plenty of missed calls that day - a situation which a simple green answer button would probably have avoided. There are even companies that specialise in producing third-party gadget manuals; O'Reilly's Missing Manuals range is probably the most famous, but I feel that this is the kind of information manufacturers should be providing in the first place.
Anti-virus firm AVG recently published a study that found 54 per cent of people over 50 in the UK felt tech companies spent too much time assuming they were technology-illiterate, with 48 per cent of the group feeling that "they get talked down to". I'd much rather get talked down to than have no idea how to use my phone for weeks on end, though. For the sake of my mother and everyone like her, give us the manuals we deserve.
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