Bad instructions are worse than none

Me, at work, yesterday. Click image for source.

Me, at work, yesterday. Click image for source.

I work in an annexe – not, as some people suspect, a cave.

This annexe has all mod cons. It has electricity, windows, a roof, even a toilet and shower. But it doesn’t have a telephone point, so my wireless network signal just about makes it through the several doors, walls and windows but is decidedly knackered by the time it gets here.

After a connection break too many I looked into my options and liked the look of the ‘NetGear 54 Mbps Wall-Plugged Wireless Range Extender Kit‘ (it says here). It looked simple. I just plug in my extender, and surf! It’s like Wash N’Go!

Except it isn’t if you follow the instructions. It’s all shite, but I quote the really bad bit:

Reconfigure your computer with:

  • NETGEAR as the Wireless Network Name (SSID)
  • A static IP address of and as the Subnet Mask.

Turns out that it really only works as plug n’play if you have a Netgear router running with its factory defaults. Otherwise, you have to piddle around as above.

Now, I know a fair amount about computers and stuff but I’m no network guru. That’s precisely why I opted for this solution. So I have no idea how to change my PC’s IP address, or what a Subnet Mask is, or where to change the SSID. The statement ‘Reconfigure your computer’ does not help at all.

But worse than that, it turns out to be a load of old rowlocks. After mucking about with various networking settings for about two hours, I just did this, by accident:

  1. Logged onto the NETGEAR network.
  2. Ran the WXG102 config utility.
  3. Typed in my router’s password.

And I was… in. On. I was back online. I didn’t have to reconfigure my PC with anything. I didn’t have to bother with static IP addresses. Subnet masks did not concern me.

So this is a rare instance in which I’m giving people real advice out there. If you buy this product, stop dicking around with the network settings now. Just plug it all in as per the diagrams, then, if you’re running Vista, go through those steps above, and you’ll save yourself several hours’ worth of frustration.

So, are tech manuals useful? Yes, at least when they’re not worse than useless. The rest of the manual is plainly written by a technical person with no insight into the kinds of people who will buy the product. It says things like “LAN and wirelessly connected computers must be configured to obtain an IP address automatically via DHCP” which, apart from being gobbledegook to me, and written in the passive voice (a big no-no in copywriting terms), it would appear on the surface to be a direct contradiction of the ‘static IP’ thing mentioned above.

The rest of it is more of the same. There’s absolutely no attempt made to simplify the process so that people who know what they’re talking about can feel smug, and those who don’t, like me, can just log on.

Even the software is dodgy. The config utility’s opening screen looks like this:


It looks bad (yes, it really looks like that, it isn’t a low JPEG quality setting). The sentence ‘The wireless setting of your computer must be set to NETGEAR for Wireless Network Name(SSID)” makes no sense. And there is a typo in “not have any wireless security enable.” How can any company allow thousands of copies of this software to pass QA?

I used to work in the publications department as the technical author at VideoLogic. We quickly realised that, given most products really worked as well as each other, the real differentiators were how attractively they were packaged, and how easy they were to install. Small things such as decent splashscreens, sophisticated CD front ends and decent documentation really did make a difference. How I wish I’d realised this at the time…

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