Stop Telling People to Read the Manual

Online, a common reply to a person asking a question is "RTFM" ("read the f@$%ing manual). Saying RTFM is not only not very helpful, but is also detrimental to product improvement.

In this video, Tony & Chelsea Northrup talk about the term RTFM and how blaming the user for every error hinders photography technology. Their point is that it has kept dedicated cameras from competing with camera phones because more people should be telling the camera manufacturers to change their design.

Tony and Chelsea's video's central premise is that the reason many people ask questions is because the product or feature is not intuitive. Sure, some things require some knowledge, but many others could be addressed in a design change of either the camera firmware or hardware.

Having written manuals, help files, and knowledgebase articles, I can attest to the fact that they are sometimes needed. However, far too many times, a simple understanding problem could be averted with a more intuitive design when it comes to software and hardware.

Many people in the community like to tell people to RTFM when sometimes that person already has. Have you read some of these manuals? I have. I write reviews for a gadget site, and I read a lot of manuals. They range from very nice to absolute garbage. Often, they're written in broken English, leaving me wondering what they are actually saying.

I recently received a multifunction flashlight that required me to read the manual because it only had one button. Press, double press, triple press, press and hold, press and hold for four seconds: it was maddening. Including a second button in the design would have made it much easier to operate. The point is that I shouldn't have to read a manual; the product should be easy enough to figure out just by using it.

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31 Comments

Ryan Cooper's picture

I kinda am on the fence on this one. Like on one hand I don't want cameras to be simplified to the point that they are as intuitive as an iPhone because they only way to do that is to vastly diminish their complexity. Apple has done that over and over and they aren't the only ones. Compare Final Cut 7 to Final Cut X when it first came out. Or compare Lightroom Classic to Lightroom. A professional camera is a complex piece of technical equipment. Transforming it into a broad consumer-friendly intuitive product is a contradiction to its purpose.

Software doesn't get simpler by making all the edge cases more intuitive. It gets simpler by eliminating the edge cases and making the common tasks super easy. Which is great for a phone that I don't want to have to think about but for something like a camera, I need those edge case for edge situations.

On the other hand, I think the bigger issue is the mentality that if someone doesn't know something that we should treat that person like an idiot instead of just helping them. Saying RTFM isn't about telling someone to read a manual, most of the time it is just a tool of shame and THAT is unacceptable.

Fristen Lasten's picture

" I think the bigger issue is the mentality that if someone doesn't know someone that we should treat that person like an idiot instead of just helping them."

That's right on.

Alex Reiff's picture

I work as an engineer as my day job, and one of my primary responsibilities for the past couple years has been to design manufacturing processes, and write manuals for workers to follow those processes. Even though I work with factory workers who have years, or sometimes decades, of technical experience, stuff slips through the cracks sometimes - maybe I explained something poorly, maybe they interpreted something differently than I expected them to, or they just didn't read carefully. It's been hammered into me to make the processes as self-explanatory as possible, and to eliminate as many opportunities as you can for someone to do it wrong. If that's the amount of effort we're putting into making sure trained professionals are doing their jobs right, I don't think it's realistic to hold someone who may be starting from zero to a higher standard.

That said, I'd still encourage users to at least skim their product manuals, just because information about what features are available is often more readily available that way than by messing around in the menu.

Michael Rapp's picture

Also a bit on the fence on this one: I'd like to spread the blame on the laziness on both sides of the aisle. Sometimes it's the lack of a customer - oriented user interface (looking at you, Lightroom, using a Grey font on a dark gray background - at least illegibility looks sleek), on the other hand there are a (minority! ) if users who wouldn't even touch the quick start guide to a piece of technology that has more computing power than an Apollo spacecraft. Which sometimes becomes obvious from the kind of question they ask.
And that's where I start to have issues: while the TO can't afford 5 minutes of his/her time for leafing through the manual/ quick start guide, it usually takes quite a bit longer to type up a coherent and correct answer.
So why should I waste my time if you can't be bothered to spend yours?

jim hughes's picture

A nice goal and a pleasant dream. But given the number of user-controllable parameters and "features" in today's cameras...?

Jared Ribic's picture

In my experience it goes both ways. In a Jerry Ghionis masterclass he says *you should read your manual* even though he's more about human interaction than geekness.
I read almost the entire manual for my Canon EOS R before it arrived and was able to use the camera within hours of receiving it to shoot Metropolitan Fashion Week. Without reading the manual in advance I would not have been comfortable enough to take that camera on a job right away.
But the *gatekeeping* you guys mention is completely wrong. Unfortunately this will probably continue as long as people want to be jerks.

When the *temperature warning* icon showed up on the EOS R5 I pulled up the manual on my phone (while waiting for the reception to begin) and learned what that was all about.
Everyone learns differently so it doesn't make sense to tell people what to do. I have many friends who don't read their manuals and I'm happy to help them out whenever I can.

Tammie Lam's picture

Stop telling people "stop telling people".

Ken Hunt's picture

Stop telling people to listen to Tony Northrup.

Fristen Lasten's picture

Not on Apple. They work different.

Kirk Darling's picture

People have to do both. I was once the lead of a support team during deployment of a new digital Cisco phone system for a certain national level Fortune 50 company. We were deploying over 200,000 phones into 30,000 offices nationwide, and my team was supporting both the installers and the end-users.

After sitting with end users of our initial deployments, I realized something critical. We had spent a lot of time writing the operational manuals and online courses for the telephones, and we expected end users to use them our training materials.

But who the hell takes an online course to use a telephone? When you buy a new car, you don't have to take an online course before you can drive away in it. The manual is for the finer details, not basic operation of the type of tool a user has operated for years earlier.

Hold a conversation, take a message, transfer a caller to another line. If those operations are not easily discerned by someone who has used a telephone for those tasks before, the user interface is too confusing. I told my people, "Never tell an end user to read the manual or take the course. They're too busy running the damned business for all that. Just answer their question and get them back to work earning the money that goes into our paychecks."

I feel rather the same way about cameras. There are often too many critical points that require reading the manual--in depth. And the manuals are so thick these days that manufacturers don't even give us the whole book anymore. They may just give us quick-start guide...because the manual is too big for them to spend money printing it.

That right there is a clue. They're too cheap to give us the manual...but they expect us to read it.

Paul Asselin's picture

Regardless, it's still a good idea to read the manual.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Well, I hate reading. Videos are just more gooder. :P

David Pavlich's picture

I had to laugh! I thought I was the only one that ever used the phrase 'more gooder'.

Michel Higuet's picture

Curiously I always read the manuals and I don't have problems, at 72 am I from an old school?

Jan Holler's picture

You could read RTFM as "read the fine manual". And why wouldn't you do so if it is already there? I am not going to watch 24 minutes of blah blah and spend the saved time rather to read manuals if necessary.

Wolfgang Post's picture

It's not only about the reading but also how one slams the manual into the user's face. The old 'RTFM' might sound harsh, but the message is clear: do some homework, make use of resources already at your hands, do self-learning and thinking. This usually helps to solve most problems.
For the more complex topics the Internet has tons of solutions anyway, that's not for the manual.
How (counter-)intuitive things can be we can see already from Tesla calling it 'Auto Pilot' and the resulting tragic accidents.Oversimplification and intuition can create a dangerous illusion.

Reginald Walton's picture

I think most of that comes from that fact that people will ask the simplest question about a product that takes only a few minutes to find in the manual, especially with these online manuals where you can just do a search on the subject matter. In addition, there are a million YouTube channels where people can see a demonstration. People have just gotten lazy and won't take the time to learn the equipment they've purchased. I know some things are quite difficult and sometimes you need some help, but the overwhelming majority of the questions I see can be easily found with a quick search of the manual or YT.

Mike Dixon's picture

The point wasn't that you shouldn't read the manual.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

RTFM, please. If not (like me), google it. Then, please come and ask me, I'll google that for you.

Robert Edwardes's picture

RTFM isn't so much a way to tell people they are dumb or lazy it is to encourage people to use the documents given by the first party to learn their tools. In web design there is a big difference between MDN and any tutorial on a blog since MDN cover all edge cases. In photography it how you can quickly learn what is going on 3 or 4 levels deep in a menu or learn the more nuanced parts of a function like how focus bracketing orders the shots and edge cases where even the manufacture tells you to use something like average metering instead of multi mode.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

I am a medical educator who trains doctors. Sometimes they ask me questions without ever reading readily available subject matter. I wish I could say that. It is just the way it is. You smile and move on. My colleagues say it is a generational thing. In the past everyone read the entire manual and today no one does.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Its the nature of the information age. In the past information wasn't readily available 24/7/365 in a searchable nature. Previous generations needed to memorize which is why our education system is completely built around testing a student's ability to recall information but rarely tests a student's ability to curate information in excess of what they can memorize.

Things have changed. Now we are expected to be able to rapidly search and vet a broad array of information. It simply isn't possible to memorize all the information we are expected to "know" in the modern world. It is magnitudes wider in scope and breadth than previous generations. Thus we have become expert searchers and curators of information.

This is an inevitable byproduct of progress. Every generation must adapt and develop different skill sets to meet the needs of the current era. Those who refuse to adapt, fall behind.

I'd also add that technical tools have expanded in scope. 30 years ago the manual for a film camera was pretty simple. It only had a small handful of dials and certainly no menu systems. Manuals have expanded in size from a few pages to hundreds.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

I absolutely agree with you. This is the change that is imposed on all of us. Resistance is futile and regressive. We must change and adapt. It is not always easy but your point is well taken. I have also noticed that when I accept the new "format" that I am actually more effective.

Mike Shwarts's picture

Reading the manual is helpful. On the other hand, due to disabilities or simply people process information differently and with different amounts of skill. Some people take verbal information easier than written information. Others are visual learners. It makes sense to help other people by word and video.

Sometimes it is the manufacturers fault. Their menus are not laid out in a methodical manner in the cameras. Their technical writing is poor, and makes following manuals difficult for those of us who are pretty good with technical stuff. It would help if the companies got together and settled on names and phrasing for features that are common across brands.

Also there is nothing wrong with something being intuitive. An intuitive design doesn't mean a dumbed down design. Make the controls intuitive where it makes sense and leave the rest as is. It is already done to some degree. For example using a graphic of the sun and clouds for setting white balance for general light conditions.

Michael Yearout's picture

I'm just the opposite. I want a manual to read and as a reference. When I can't quite figure something out, I go to the manual, find it in the index and read it. Much easier than just fiddling with everything until you figure it out and easier than a video because it's in print.

Richard A. G. Lipscomb's picture

1 100% recommend reading the manual twice, But don't tell someone to RTFM when they want help.

2 Not everyone learns the same, some ppl can read and it is as easy as ABC to understand! Some learn better with video or hands-on. Maybe if explained differently they will understand.

If you can help someone just do it. How does helping someone hurt you?

TBH cameras are rather easy enough with auto modes like P and full auto! I don't recommend using them but they are available. Now with pet/human eye AI autofocus less and less out of focus shots.
Mirrorless now lets you see the final image will look like before you take the shot when not using flash.

Now the screens are touch screens so you can just touch the screen to focus on your subject

Now the menu systems, many are hard to navigate around to find what you need to set or change settings. They do need a better system. Now with touch screens, they need a finder or search with a built-in touch screen keyboard so you can find what you are looking for much easier.

I do not want a camera to be as simple as using an iPhone, is their room for improvement yes!
I like shooting with an iPhone but I feel more creative or in the moment with a dedicated camera.

Mike Ditz's picture

I find that the problem with most manuals is they are written by the engineers / product people who made the product.

They assume that if the camera has 12 focus modes and 15 exposure modes that all are equally important. When in reality most people will use 4 focus an 5 exposure modes, as most of the rest are "we can do this so we will add the feature needed or not"
I skim the manual then look online or for a book written by a third party actual user, not a builder of the product. The guy will say sure there are 15 exposure modes, but 11 are useless or do the same thing in a different way.

Bert Nase's picture

OMG, Northrup hits again and FStoppers has to post it....

Eric Grapher's picture

Gatekeeping is also about keeping scammers and spammers out.

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