Reflections from the River

Why engineers shouldn't write owner's manuals

October 31, 2022 Bill Enyart
Reflections from the River
Why engineers shouldn't write owner's manuals

Why engineers shouldn’t write instruction manuals 

Here’s a great idea to ease consumer frustration. Don’t let engineers, especially engineers whose first language is not English, write product manuals for Americans. Now don’t get me wrong, I have friends who are engineers. I have the greatest respect for engineers. But let’s face it, they speak a language unknown to most humans.

Let me give you an example. For the last two weeks, ever since I charged the battery, my Shimano Di2 gear shifters on my ICE VTX World Champion Edition haven’t worked right. Not worked right in that the front derailleur wouldn’t shift down into low. Ordinarily, living in Illinois, and riding mostly old rail line, paved trails that isn’t an issue. But every now and then I must pedal up an incline, some of them short and steep. That’s when low gear comes in handy.

Now before I lose everybody, I realize I’m speaking a foreign language to those who aren’t bicycle aficionados. This is unlike engineers. They think everybody understands, or should understand them. 

Ok. For those of you who haven’t ridden a bike since single speed, coaster brake, grade school days, as the bicycling world has evolved, we went to ten-speeds, with the little lever gear shifts mounted on the cross tube, like the one I bought at Kmart for $59 and rode to classes at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, after discharge from the Air Force. Riders shifted gears by pushing the little levers back and forth, which pulled a cable and miraculously gears changed.

Although it was cheap and heavy, it got me from apartment in town out to campus and back much faster than walking. Decades later, with increased disposable income and bicycling friends leading me astray, I moved from bike to bike seeking lighter weight, faster speeds and longer distances. 

This search led to my last two-wheeler, a famous brand, carbon-fiber frame with high-end components. Shifter were no longer shifters, now they were brifters. Brifters are combination brakes and shifters. So, the same levers at the ends of your handle bars that you pull back on to brake are now also shifters. You tap them up and down to change gears. And that ten-speed clunker has morphed into an eighteen-speed, zoomie.

Ahhh, but then a serious bicycle crash resulting in two shoulder surgeries led me astray again. Seeking to lessen shoulder, wrist and posterior pain on an aging body, I discovered the world of recumbent trikes. Now, a recumbent trike is as far removed from the trikes you rode before you graduated to that single speed, coaster brake, red Western Flyer, as the high-end carbon fiber two-wheeler is from the Western Flyer. 

After owning two lesser model ICE trikes, I made the plunge and invested a chunk of my children’s inheritance in the ICE VTX World Champion Edition, so-called because for two years in a row-2018 and 2019-it won the World Human Powered Vehicle Association one hundred kilometer (62 miles) closed circuit race.

This little black rocket ship has lost the shift levers. Lost the brifters. It has little buttons, one on either end of the handle bar that you push to shift gears. A little battery in a little box under the frame provides the power to the derailleurs to shift up and down. A rider only needs to charge the battery every eight hundred miles or so to keep on shifting. 

If the battery goes dead the rider is stuck in the last gear he put it in. This can be unpleasant if you’re stuck in very high gear or very low gear. So, I’m pretty good about ensuring the battery is charged. 

You ask why does anyone need electric button shifters. When my friends started getting them on their new high-end two-wheelers, I questioned the same. I thought: what a silly way to spend your money on something you don’t need. Ahh, but then I got the VTX. Smooth shifting. Effortless shifting. Cleaner lines. No levers hanging off the ends of the handlebars. You get the idea. A stick-shift Chevy will get you there, but an automatic transmission Cadillac gets you there in style. Same concept.

Now that you know what a Shimano Di2 electric shift is, we’ll get back to why engineers shouldn’t write owner’s manuals. My new VTX gets delivered by a semi from Wisconsin. Did I mention these are rare and hard to get, even harder during Covid? I strip the box and packing off and stare in open lust at this low-slung beauty.

I pull a set of pedals off one of my other trikes and install them on the fastest trike in the world. My breath comes quicker at the thought. Oh yeah, for you non-cyclists, fancy new cycles, whether two wheel or three don’t come with pedals. You get to pick which kind you want and install them. Pedals installed I take my new love interest out for a quick spin around the neighborhood. Oh my God, she’s fast, she’s nimble, she’s everything I’ve dreamed about.

Back home, new acquisition safely secured under lock and key in the shed, I pull out the owner’s manuals and commence reading about the electric shifters. Note I said reading about, not learning about. I go back outside, pull the trike out and start looking for the little box that I’m supposed to plug the charger into.

I look at the front. I look at the back. Where the devil is the box. The illustrations and directions give me no idea where to find it. Eventually I find it. The rubber flap covering the charging port is so tiny I need tweezers to get it open. The charging plug will only insert one way. The port is so small that even with my reading glasses it’s impossible to see which way.

I finally get the plug seated and continue to read the instructions. Complete gobble-d-gook. Something about a green light will flash, then a redlight will flash, then both lights will flash, then they will light steadily. It goes on pressing the button on the box will set stage one, or stage two or manual. No explanation as to what stage one or stage two or manual is. Hey, I’ll just plug it in and let it charge. Hour or two later, unplug it and works fine.

Eight months later I’ve recharged the battery several times. Works perfectly each time. Last week I recharged the battery. The next day out riding the Metrolink Rail Trail near Belleville, Illinois, my hometown trail, I hit the downshift button. Down one gear, down another gear, down another gear. But when I get to the last gear the front derailleur hasn’t shifted, only the rear. I tap the button time and again. Nada.

Grunt up the hill.

Oh well, I’ll try it tomorrow. 

Tomorrow comes. Still won’t shift.

Rather than try to decipher the engineer written manual (did I mention I was a journalism major?), I post a plea on the ICE Trikes Facebook page, describing the problem and seeking help. One kind gentleman responds, check the plugs make sure they’re tight. Sometimes they look like they’re plugged in but not in all the way. He went on if that doesn’t work download something to your PC and see if the app recognizes… you get the idea. Must be another engineer, this one a computer engineer. 

Ok. I check the plugs. I unplug them, re-insert them. Jam them tight. Nope. Nada. Still no granny low gear. As for downloading the app, etc, that ain’t gonna happen.

Yesterday, beautiful fall day here in Southwestern Illinois. Leaves are at their peak. Mid-60’s. Time to ride. I get back, wife still at her meeting. Gear shift still doesn’t go down to granny low. It’s either a forty-five-minute drive through rush hour traffic to the St. Louis bike shop that works on ICE trikes or figure this out.

I pull out the manual. Push and hold the button twice. Nope. Push and hold the button for five seconds. Nope. Why are the red and green lights both on? Push some more. Nope. Push the button on the box and hold the shift button down. Is that what they mean. You get the drift. Pushing buttons. Holding buttons down. Lights flashing. None of this makes any sense.

Wait a minute, does stage one mean the rear derailleur is locked out? Does stage two mean the front derailleur is locked out? Does manual mean neither is locked out? Who knows. At any rate, after fifteen minutes of pushing buttons, stopping to test ride and shift up and down the alley, SUCCESS!

I’m so proud of myself! I fixed it! I fixed it! I didn’t take it to the bike shop only to feel like an idiot when they would take forty-five seconds to push a button a couple of times and make it work.

Have you ever tried to explain to your non-cycle riding spouse why you’re so proud of yourself for fixing something on your cycle? Spouse gives glazed look and asks, “Why do you wear those ridiculous looking tights when you ride in cool weather?" 

All of this goes to explain why engineers shouldn’t write instruction manuals…unless they are dual English majors, but I’ve yet to meet one of those.


© William Enyart, Reflections from the River,


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