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No Instructions...

February 2015

Of all the emails I receive from readers – and I am always pleased to read them – probably the most plaintive are those looking for a handbook for their computer.  On the face of it, it is absurd that a piece of expensive machinery is issued with almost no instructions, but I am afraid that’s the way it is, and with fairly good reason.

The main problem is that a handbook wouldn’t be much use.   A computer is such a fiercely complex piece of kit, and the variables in the settings and controls are so immense that any handbook that covers every possibility would be the size of a pyramid of Giza, and probably just as impenetrable.  

Sometimes you are given a guide to the hardware.  The computer I am working on now comes with one; 225 pages of it, mostly dealing with which button to press to open the CD drawer, or how to open the case to clean out the accumulated fluff (always worth doing every year or so, but unplug it first).

Leaving aside the slightly bizarre fact that the book is delivered in the form of a file which lives in the computer memory (how can I refer to it when the computer is broken?) much of it is it is already out of date; all software can, and probably will, change, and it often alters the hardware’s behaviour.  Even the on/off switch can be programmed to work differently.

However, what my readers  ask for, usually rather wistfully, is not so much a repair manual, but step by step instructions as to how to achieve specific tasks; send email, download documents, connect to Wi-Fi,  printers and so on; all the day to day operations that we bought the wretched machine for in the first place.  But such things hardly exist in a form that is much use.

There are some tactics you can employ that will help a bit.  First, if you insist on a guide book, make it as specific and focussed as possible, ideally aimed at a single version of one piece of software, rather than a general guide.   I have often found the “… for Dummies” series to be helpful, although they vary in quality.

Second, and more likely to be of use, get to know the built-in help file for the software you are using.  This is the modern handbook; they do exist, and will be updated as the software changes.

Try this: press the F1 key; in almost all programmes, some sort of help-file will appear (this doesn’t work on a Mac).  How you use it will depend on how it is put together; like all handbooks, printed or digital, they are written by humans, and we all know how fallible they are.

Microsoft help-files tend to be well enough written and extensive.  Unfortunately, they often rely on you asking a question; this works better if you know the right jargon word to use to trigger the right sort of response. Practise makes perfect. 

Third, don’t forget the outside world.  If you are at all proficient at using Google, just type your problem into the search box and see what comes up.  Be fairly specific and concise; mention the programme you are using:  “French accents in Outlook 2010” for example.

It might take you a little while to check through the links Google comes up with, but there is no such thing as a new problem in the digital world, and other users tend to be very generous with their help and support.

Like Blanche Dubois before me, I have long depended on the kindness of strangers to see me through the murk and mire of computers and software and I urge you to do the same.