Sunday, November 1, 2009

Writing Instructions, or Baby, don't fear the reader

Think about the last time you followed a set of instructions: Did you get it right the first time? My guess is "No." Yet authors not only write instructions (including standard operating procedures and tutorials) as if no one would ever make a mistake, when they discover that people do make mistakes authors solve the problem exactly the wrong way.

There are, it seems to me, three reasons for an instruction failing:
  • It's wrong (incorrect, in the wrong order)
  • It's missing some information that the reader needs
  • The reader misread it
The first problem can, of course, be solved by having someone else follow your instructions (don't test your own instructions: you'll read what you think you wrote rather than reading what you actually wrote).

The second problem is solved by a good audience analysis. You need to make sure that everything the audience needs--and nothing more!--is included in the instruction. So, when you test your instructions by having someone follow them, pick a typical member of your audience to be your reader. You also want to omit as much as possible in the first draft of your instructions and only add additional material as your typical audience member requests it.

So what can you do about the third problem? The author's usual response when a reader makes a mistake is to fix the instruction. If the problem lies in the first two categories, that's not inappropriate.  But for the third problem--where the reader has just made a mistake--fixing the instruction is the wrong answer. And don't believe the reader when they come up with a problem with the instruction: "man is the explaining animal".

So, how do you tell if there is a real problem with an instruction? Simple: Have multiple readers follow the instructions (at least five) and fix the instruction only if two or more of your readers (a) get it wrong and (b) give the same reason.

Most authors, unfortunately, will automatically fix an instruction if any reader gets it wrong. The author seems terrified to let any reader have a problem--it's as if every reader has input to the author's performance appraisal and will fire the author if anything goes wrong. You know what? Readers make mistakes all the time: They're used to it. Granted, if readers find that they're running into problems frequently they'll decide that you're a terrible writer. But if the reader stumbles over one instruction, they'll re-read the instruction, recognize their mistake and move on the with their lives.

It gets worse: Most authors will "fix" the instruction by adding more words. When challenged on this, the author will respond that they are making the directions "more specific" and "more clear." How you could make an instruction clearer by adding more words is a mystery to me. Of course, if the instruction tells the reader to do something that's wrong the offending words should be cut out and replaced with the correct words; if the instruction omits something that the typical audience member needs then that material should be added.  But simply throwing more words at the instruction won't solve anything if the reader misread the instruction. In fact, adding more words will make it less likely that the reader will see what needs to be done in the instruction.

More critically: Adding more words punishes all subsequent readers because one reader make a mistake reading an instruction once. Now all readers now have to plow through longer and longer instructions.

Does that mean that you shouldn't recognize that readers make mistakes? No, of course not. As I suggested at the start, the typical experience of the reader is that they do make a mistake somewhere. So, rather than punish every reader by "enhancing" instructions, support the real problem by helping the reader fix mistakes.

I've taken to following instructions with a diagnosis of a common mistake and a description of how to fix the resulting problem. If a reader has the problem, they'll recognize their symptom and read the solution; if a reader doesn't have the problem, the reader can skip over the problem.Every instruction should be accompanied some feedback: something that tells the reader if they're doing things right. This is just another kind of feedback: telling the reader if they're doing things wrong.

For instance, when handed a jar with a lid and asked to remove it, I suspect that most of my audience knows how to get the lid off. So my instruction would be very short. However, the odd reader will have a problem. Rather than expand the instruction with words that 95% of my audience won't need, I'd follow the instruction with a problem/solution:

4) Remove the lid.
       Problem: "The cap won't move." Solution: You may be turning the lid the wrong way: Try turning the lid in the other direction. If that doesn't work, the lid is probably on too tight for you to move it. Find a stronger friend to take the lid off for you.

Reading or read

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