Whether you’re telling the new intern at work just how to file a new client’s folder, or giving your sister a rundown on how Fido likes his dinner prepared, you’re giving instructions. As a general rule, it’s easier to give instructions in person — the instructee can ask for clarification on anything he doesn’t understand.
When you’re writing down instructions, though, it can be much harder to explain each step needed to complete the task. Think about doing your own taxes: the IRS’ instructions are enough to drive some of us to paying hundreds of dollars just to avoid dealing with the dratted things. As you write your instructions, keep the following questions in mind to make both writing them and following them at least a little easier.
What is the end result?
“Rinse. Wash. Repeat.” The typical shampoo instructions bother me on a fundamental level. It’s mostly that I’m not sure when I should stop repeating. Just how shiny is my hair supposed to be in the end? How will I know when it’s clean enough to stop washing? I try to avoid getting existential in the shower, but this set of instructions shows the problem with half the directions that cross my desk. There’s no end, no goal, no product that makes it easy for the person following along at home to know that she can stop.
When writing a set of instructions, the first thing you should make note of is the end result. Even a good title can take care of this task: a cook following instructions on “How to Boil a Pot of Water” can probably figure out that he can stop when the water starts boiling. Want to prove the point? Leave an untitled set of instructions on an office assistant’s desk and head out for the weekend. Long before you get to the beach, you’ll be getting a phone call to ask just what is sitting on the desk.
Do you have the same starting point?
I once wound up driving almost fifteen miles out of my way trying to get to a friend’s house. I followed his directions to the letter — I thought. Turns out, he had given me directions from some place quite close to his house, assuming I could get there on my own. And I probably could have gotten that far without directions, if I had known that I needed to start there.
Make your starting point clear, whether you’re giving driving directions or telling someone how to hook up their new television. The starting point may not even be an address; it may be a list on ingredients or necessary equipment that your user should have ahead of time. Think about running a combine out at the farm. If you had to run one, you might be able to, with good instructions. But would you recognize the combine in the first place?
Are you speaking the same language?
My version of the English language doesn’t quite match one of my clients. I mentioned that perhaps we should use social networking to market his business. He was with me to that point, but when I put together a list of steps for how we should proceed, he wasn’t familiar with a whole set of terms: “What the heck is tweeting? Do I need to buy a bird?” Some times we get so used to the jargon or dialect of our day-to-day conversations that we don’t realize that someone new to the concept — the exact type of person needing instructions — doesn’t use the same words in the same way.
Your instructions don’t need to devolve into tasks within tasks and attempts to introduce that new intern to all the office terminology in one go. Just write your instructions to a less knowledgeable audience — think about your dear grandma who just isn’t up on modern day slang while you’re writing.
These questions can apply to visual instructions just as much as written directions. Symbols and icons don’t always communicate well, despite the claim that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ One lasting example is the sign on the ladies’ room door — that all-important instruction on just who is allowed entry. In the U.S., we have that funky stick figure with the fins on either side, meant to represent a skirt. In many Middle Eastern countries, though, the ladies’ room is indicated with a veil. Icons can trip us up just as easily as words.
Can you test it?
A set of instructions don’t need the same user testing that your new website design should probably undergo. But handing it to the guy at the next desk over, and asking “Does this make sense?” can speed up the time it takes someone to follow your directions by hours. Even thirty seconds of minor corrections is not too much effort, especially if you’re paying someone by the hour to complete this task. In some situations, of course, testing is impossible. It’s worth the effort if you can arrange it, though.
If you are planning to use the same set of instructions multiple times, it’s worth asking the person who carried out the task to let you know of any specific problems. Clear them up now and you can minimize problems down the road.
And even perfectly-phrased instructions aren’t a guarantee that everyone will figure out what you mean. But they do up the odds that your new intern will survive her first day in the office and that you’ll manage to keep all of your hair. So write your instructions, breath deeply and relax with the knowledge that you’ve written a darn good set of instructions.