Rethinking RTFM

Poster: Keep Calm and RTFM

I still appreciate the humor behind RTFM. But it’s not the way I actually feel.

RTFM. Read the [bad word] manual.

As in, “I don’t know how to do this.”
“Did you look at the instructions?”
“Well [rolling eyes], why don’t you read the….”

RTFM has been a byword among technical communicators for as long as I’ve been hanging out with them. (That’s more than 35 years, by the way.)

RTFM reinforces the idea that documentation is important, an essential part of any product.

But RTFM also betrays exasperation and insecurity. We — as a profession — might sound smug when we say it. But inside we’re thinking, Why don’t people like to read instructions? We see it as a rejection of what we do, and ultimately of us ourselves. It stings.

It’s time to rethink RTFM.

Self-pity does not serve our profession well. If we really think that what we do contributes value, then let’s focus on contributing even more value — until nobody can deny that we bring a lot to the party.

We’re even less well-served by disdaining our customers. In an age when content has been dethroned and the audience is now king, why should we expect readers to seek out documentation for our products? We have so many options for delivering content — through videos, smartphones, and other media — that we ought to be able to customize it for our audiences.

In other words, rather than expecting our customers to come to us for knowledge, we ought to be taking knowledge to them — where they are and in formats they can use. For that matter, with all our expertise in UX (user experience), let’s work with our product designers to eliminate the need for documentation whenever possible.

RTFM? Yeah, I still smile when I see or hear it. But it doesn’t reflect the way I really feel. I hope it doesn’t reflect the way you really feel either.

13 thoughts on “Rethinking RTFM

  1. Mark Baker

    Agreed, Larry.

    But since we can’t address every user problem through interface design, I think it is also time to rethink the manual as the vehicle for communicating the information that customers do need.

    As the term RTFM implies, the manual has always served as a way of partitioning and limiting our responsibility to inform the user. Rather than responding to needs how and when they occur, we create this brick that defines the limits of our willingness to engage. RTFM is an expression of our unwillingness to engage in any way other than by delivering that brick.

    Now we should acknowledge that limits on our willingness to engage may be justified. Users may seek more engagement than they are willing to pay for. But the manual often represents not merely a limit on our willingness to engage, but a refusal to even think about the most cost-effective ways to engage a modern audience.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Absolutely right, Mark. I chose not to address the point in my post, but “manual” is outmoded simply because it’s no longer the only format we deliver.

      You’ve added insight by pointing out that “manual” also implies a decision on our part to limit the ways in which we engage with our customers. Thanks.

  2. Susan Carpenter

    Oddly, I’ve never infused RTFM with woe-is-me-and-what-I-do. I’ve always reacted more like the psycho IT guy when presented with someone who can’t remember how to turn his or her computer on. But I’ve never truly lived that cliche, either, because I’ve never worked on a mass-market product.

    My subjects were always very niche. It’s not as if anyone could run a quick Google search to repair their military helicopter 35 years ago. C/C++ class libraries are rather difficult to discover independently. And when faced with a scary-sounding error message from the software that’s running major e-commerce sites, most IT people are going to want to look it up.

    But to your point, that error message is a whole lot more useful now than it was before the writer got his or her hands on it. So it’s not just about manuals, and it hasn’t been for a while now. It’s about intuitive UI strings, helper apps, messages, and embedded assistance. If my customer makes it as far as RTFM, my front-line efforts might have already failed.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Susan. Let’s be open-minded here: maybe I’m the odd one. I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say.

      To your point about error messages: that’s the sort of thing I had in mind when I said we can apply our UX expertise to improve the way the product is designed.

  3. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Larry, I appreciate the respect that your post conveys, including respect for users (whether or not they RTFM) and for creators of TFMs. I’ve been on both sides of TFM, and, in my opinion, a FM worth R’ing—this may sound odd to say—comes down to love. Did the creator of the FM (defining M to be not just an old-fashioned manual but any form of user instruction) feel enough love for the product, and for the users of the product, to provide information that’s valuable?

    When the answer is yes, R’ing TFM can be a glorious experience. Too often, unfortunately, the answer is no, in which case, even the most eager reader will find R’ing TFM a waste of time and a disappointment.

    Example: Recently, for the first time in my life, my husband and I bought a vacuum cleaner that does more than spit dirt back out. (Really, in case you haven’t seen it for yourself, some vacuums do that.) Our new vacuum is an engineering marvel. It’s a thing of beauty. You could frame it and hang it on a wall with pride if it weren’t so useful as a tool. Owners of this vacuum profess affection for it that rivals their feelings for their pets. The demonstration I witnessed in the showroom left me eager to get home to my dirty carpets so that I could experience the joy for myself.

    In addition, as a tech writer, I couldn’t wait to (you guessed it) RTFM. I love a good FM. Give me a good FM over a novel any day. Surely, this vacuum’s FM would be a joy to R. Surely, this FM would remind me of, and enable me to do, all the wondrous things the salesperson had demonstrated. Surely, this FM would be as top-of-the-line, as affection-worthy, as the machine it described.

    You’re way ahead of me. The FM was barely R’able. What an opportunity missed. With Ms like that in the world, it’s no wonder that people don’t RTFM.

    So I add my voice to Larry’s. If you W FMs, W them as if people will R them. When you can, help make the product even more self-explanatory so that less needs to go into the FM. Do what you can to raise expectations of what a FM can be. TFM can be part of a glorious experience. If we, the creators of TFM, don’t believe that, who will?

    1. Mark Baker

      “R’ing TFM can be a glorious experience.”

      Nobody but a tech writer could ever write that sentence! It’s the professional equivalent of a dentist admiring a really good root canal. The patient appreciates the root canal only because it makes the pain stop, not because they enjoyed the experience. 🙂

      1. Mark Baker

        Well, that’s funky. But no, not glorious, at least to me. It is a gimmick that may well appeal to lovers of books and all things die cut (like my old friend Joe Goski does: But I can’t see why it would appeal to the buyer of a cell phone.

        I think that is a case of being too much in love with our own craft. One of the arguments that we use to justify the existence of tech writers is that developers are too much in love with their own craft and put too much of it into the docs. But writers suffer from the same malady, imagining people to be far more interested in the bookishness of books and the wordishness of words than most of them really are.

        From what I have seen, when it comes to setting up and using a phone, people fall into two groups: those who already know how, and those who get someone else to do it for them. If there is a third group it is those who watch Youtube videos.

        This might possibly work as a marketing device, if it is used to suggest that the phone is high end. Not sure that associating a digital device with old fashioned paper books sends the right message. But I don’t claim to know what makes people pay for prestige, so maybe this really works for that.

        Personally, knowing how expensive those books would be to manufacture, though, not to mention the additional shipping and warehousing costs involved, I would send the whole thing back for a refund and spend my money on tech rather than packaging.

      2. Marcia Riefer Johnston

        Mark, You’re right that you’d never be the target audience for instructions done like this. I wonder whom the instructions were intended for. What I like about most that video is the expansive feeling of the realm of possibilities opening up and the obvious empathy that went into the approach. Those things inspire me, even though I’ll probably never create anything like those books.

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  6. Charlie V

    1. People deserve better than a FM and the time wasted going through 300 pages containing unexplained jargon, an appendix that requires you to know the exact term rather than allowing synonyms (“find”, “search”, “list”, “display”, “report” etc.) that point to the entry, inconsistencies, omissions etc. and you can’t tell it that there’s a problem with the description.
    2. A manual is equivalent to a teacher who writes on the blackboard and refuses to answer questions from the students.
    3. Has anyone on planet earth ever read a computer error message that told you what to do now that the error has occurred – in English?


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