How do you start a pudding race? Sago. How do you start a hire car? Read 200 pages of documentation!

I recently had to hire a car for a few days. It was a 2021 car – very new, with all the latest gizmos – but I found it was a nightmare to use! Its “configuration and use” reminded me of software product documentation. I think people who develop products tend to forget who their audience is.

“Before you start”

The first challenge was to get to the drivers seat into the right position. I’ve been used to cars where you pull up a mechanical lever underneath the seat, move the seat back and release the lever, then adjust the height. This had the improved version it was all electronic. There were three knobs on the base of the seat. One knob seemed to move the seat back and down, one knob seemed to move the seat forward and up, and one knob to make the back of the seat softer or harder. I could either move the seat up to the wheel to be able to see over the bonnet of the car (I felt like a little squirrel with my hands close to my shoulders), or I could move the seat back and down, and only be able to see under the top of the steering wheel; I compromised.

When I got to the hotel that evening, I read the instructions, and found that if you move both the knobs for positioning the seat at the same time – it controlled the height. The second day I could position it and find a comfortable driving position.

Starting the car.

You did not need to put the key in the ignition, you just pressed the “Engine Start/Stop” button to turn the car on, then press the Engine Start/Stop button again to start the engine and drive off. Good theory, bad practice. I pressed the button to start the engine, and it said “Service the car now, press OK and reset”. I could not put the car into drive and drive off. Amongst all of the buttons and knobs I could not find one called “OK” nor “reset”. Turning the car off and on, sometimes seemed to clear it. We eventually found that if you waited 10 seconds, it reset itself. Being a hybrid car, it sometimes used the battery, and sometimes used the engine. It was strange at first driving off in silence, but that’s ok.

I was waiting in a queue of parked traffic on a hill. I had turned the car on, and started the engine, put the car in drive and pressed the throttle – only to find the car running backwards towards the car behind – an almost whooops. The car was not in run mode.

Eventually my wife said “the ‘Engine Start/Stop button needs to be in blue to be able to drive off. If it is yellow, or orange it is not in drive mode” This button was hidden behind the steering wheel, so I could not see it. If I moved closer to the steering wheel, I could see it.

My wife who used to be a programmer came up with a flow diagram along the lines of

  • Turn on car, ignore all of the visual effects.
  • If it says “service now” just wait till goes away.
  • Wait until the display said “run mode” and the speedometer is displaying 0 miles per hour, then you can drive off.
  • When I tried using it before the car was ready it beeped at me, and my friends came to offer (unhelpful) suggestions!

Parking the car

With most automatics the “Park” mode is good enough when you are on flat ground, but you should put the parking brake on when you are not on flat ground.

We looked in the index of the user’s guide which said “Parking brake, see page …..” This said to use the parking brake press the parking brake with your foot, as per illustration. My car did not match the illustration (I got out of the car to look in the foot well). I pressed what looked like the parking brake button – and nothing happened. That night I read the instruction book, and that to use the “Electronic Brake Control” you have to press the brake pedal, then the EBC button.

The car automatically released the EBC when you started driving.

We got to the hotel, took our suitcases out of the boot and I tried to lock the car. It displayed a message saying “key not in car” with a yellow cigar shaped icon, and the doors were not locked. Of course the key was not in the car, I was trying to lock the car and take the key away! It was like one of those messages which says “consult your system programmer” and you shout at it ” I AM THE SYSTEMS PROGRAMMER”.

I got in the car, turned it on, turned it off, got out – and tried again. Still “no key in car”. My wife suggested getting in the car, turning it on, waiting for a few seconds then stopping it and getting out. This time it locked the car.

Is this a safe car?

I found that the abundance of safety features made the car less safe. For example when I was changing lane, there was a brief display on the multi function display. I think it was telling me I was about to move out of my lane. This distracted me from driving, as I had to look down and see what was displayed. By the time I had spotted what was displayed, it had disappeared.

When two motorways merged, I had to merged right. As I pulled out, I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye. Was this from a car I had not seen? No – it was the wing mirror displaying a car symbol to say there was a car close behind me.

The car frequently beeped, which was distracting as you had to look at the dash board to see if this was important or not.

If this was a car that you used every day it may have been a great car, but for someone using it as a hire car for two days – this was a terrible car to use.

The instructions

The instruction book has over 500 pages. It covered many models, so much of it did not apply to my car. The first chapter as about the benefits of using hybrid, and so on. The second chapter was about the 14 ways you can install a child seat in the car. The third chapter was “convenient features of your vehicle”. The fourth chapter was “Infotainment”, and finally the fifth chapter covered the controls, one of which was the “Engine Start/Stop” button”. These instructions came after “How to change the battery in the key fob”, “Theft-alarm system” and “Driver position memory system” which are not the top priority topics that people need to know.

The most important button was buried among all of the controls.

Some of the pictures on the controls were baffling, so once I got home, I looked at the instruction manual online. I failed to find what one of the pictures was. If I had read the book cover to cover then I may have found it. They must be better ways for all manufactures to write the instruction books!

This feels like one of the products I have been using on z/OS. It covers configuration, tailoring etc, and on page about 240 it say “this is how you start it”. I would consider much of the tailoring as optional, advanced tailoring.

You are meant to know how to logon. I was told “It is intuitive”. Once you know the magic incantation it was easy to use, but the documentation does not tell you the magic incantation to get started.

With the car I would provide a one sheet of A4 paper with pictures and text, covering

  • Adjusting the seat
  • Adjusting the wing mirrors and interior mirror
  • How to start the car along the lines of
    • Press the “Engine Start/Stop button”
    • If it says “service car now” wait till the message disappears
    • Wait until the display shows “0 MPH”
    • Press the brake pedal
    • Move the gear level to Drive or Reverse
    • Use the throttle to move off.
  • How to stop the car
    • Park it
    • If you want to put on the parking brake, use the foot brake, then push down the switch with the “P” on it beside the gear lever. A red ! in a triangle sign appears
    • Press the “Engine Start/Stop button” and the car should shutdown
    • Get out of the car and press the “lock” button on the remote. The wing mirrors should fold in, and the display goes black.

Writing installation instructions

If you get this far, and are responsible for writing documentation on how to install and customise software here are some thoughts on how to write the documentation

  • Know your audience. Do you expect them to be experts?
  • What is the minimum information they need to know to get started? Move any other information to the back of the document (is knowing how to change the battery in the key fob more important than knowing how to start the car?)
  • If the instructions take more than one page – are the instructions too complex, can you simplify the product?
  • How will people use the information?

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