Technophobia, and other reasons consumers won't read the manual

Fear is a powerful motivator. But it can be downright dangerous when it deters consumers from understanding how to use technology in a safe manner. Plato said it best...

"We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light."

This is as true in technical communication as it is in philosophy; there are dangers to not understanding things that can be understood if we make an effort. However, as documented in this post from Engadget, "95 percent of returned gadgets still work and Americans don't read manuals."

Lets think about this for a moment. Imagine you are a consumer and you've just purchased a new lawnmower. You know it has rapidly rotating blades, burning hot cylinders and exhaust, and the potential to seriously mess you up if you abuse it.

So why would you not read the manual?

Chances are the tool is well documented... with pictures... in various languages... what gives?

At the core of the issue is human emotion.

Many people just fear technology. They have technophobia, to a greater or lesser degree.

There is no conscious process of deciding to read the manual in most instances. More likely it is a rapid series of snap judgements. The internal dialog would likely sound like this, if the consumer would slow down enough to analyze it.

"It's a lawnmower. I know how this works already." (Assumption.)

"Sort of." (Honest expression of doubt.)

"Besides, that manual has a lot of fine print, and I'm probably going to have to read through a bunch of junk before I figure out what I really need to know." (Hopelessness based on previous experiences.)

"And I'm a smart person. I can figure it out myself. I don't want my wife (husband, kids, whomever) thinking I don't know how to work a lawnmower." (Pride.)

A consumer will run through an entire range of such internal thoughts in an instant. The more often that consumer follows a certain thought process, the more often that approach becomes ingrained... burned into their synapses as the solution for dealing with a particular type of problem.

Robert Pirsig talks at length about this in "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." The crux of the problem is that complexity is scary. There is a mental hurdle that a person needs to jump in order to break free from technophobia; they must see themselves as capable.

Big, scary manuals elicit fear that can run all the way back to elementary school, when we receive our first text books. Man, that looks complicated. And the quick and easy fix is to give up.

Instead of taking time to learn how a lawnmower or motorcycle functions, consumers just take the gadget to a repair shop, return it, or learn through trial and error while potentially putting themselves in harms way.

It's the path of least resistance.

The combination of a fear of complexity combined with an easier alternative is our biggest enemy. We need to help consumers overcome such fears if we want to be successful as technical writers. And to do that, we need to think like our readers.

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