12 Secrets Of Writing Great How-To Instructions

Watch this 3.28 video and find out what happens when we give bad instructions:

Did you catch what he said at 1:44? He said the problem was “probably the English language.”

The problem wasn’t the English language. The problem was the instructions didn’t contain enough information for the task to be performed properly.

The phrase “four inches apart” wasn’t defined and the workmen interpreted it to mean four inches between the end of one groove and the start of the next groove, like this:

4 inches NOT including groove width

The four inches was actually supposed to include the width of the grooves, like this:

4 inches including groove width

This failure to properly define “four inches apart” cost the City of Lancaster money and embarrassment. It could have easily been avoided.

So, let’s take a look at how to give good written instructions:

Make sure you provide enough information
Is the instruction “four inches apart” all someone needs to properly place the grooves? Sometimes we think we’re giving enough information because we’re too familiar with what we’re describing.

What should users already know in order to use your instructions?
Will every single person who reads your instructions know this? If not, you’ll need to include that information. However, you don’t want to go into too much detail because you need to assume a certain level of knowledge. The idea is you don’t want to lose people who
almost have that level of knowledge.

Give some context, if necessary.
How-to instructions help the user do something that solves a problem. What is the problem? If you’ve ever tried to use poorly structured help content you know what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about Microsoft Word. Unless they’ve changed it (I don’t use Word) their unhelpful “help” content is nothing more than a discrete explanation of each feature and how it works.

Get straight to the point.
Don’t make the user wade through a lot of big, fancy words in order to find what he needs. Simplicity reigns.

Avoid big chunks of text.
After you’ve written your instructions step back and look at them. Is it a bunch of long paragraphs and only a few examples? If so, only the most desperate souls will use your instructions to solve their problem.  Learn how to use white space.

Use just the right number of steps.
If you use too many, it’s annoying. If you use too few, it’s confusing. Think carefully about what you’re trying to explain and choose the number of steps that make the most sense.

Give examples.
They are often the best explanation of how to do something.

Be careful with acronyms and jargon.
Do your users understand what all that stuff means? If you’re 100% sure they do, cool. Go ahead and use them. However, if there’s a chance your users aren’t familiar with these terms, leave them out.

Choose the words and phrases you want to use and stick with them.
Don’t use “tick” in one place and then “check” in another to mean the same thing. That will just confuse the reader. Pick your words and phrases and then stick with them.

Use images and screenshots, but don’t get carried away.
The user probably doesn’t need to see a screenshot of every single step. In fact, scrolling past large screenshots to get to the next instruction step can be annoying. Have a little faith in the reader. Sometimes one screenshot is enough.

Follow your own instructions.
After you’ve written your instructions, carefully follow them yourself to complete the task. Take your time and pay attention. Do your instructions make sense? Did you notice anything missing? Anything that was confusing or not properly explained? Take notes and then fix it.

Get someone else to follow your instructions.
Call it a fresh set of eyes.  Ask someone who isn’t familiar with the software or product to perform a task using your support articles. This can provide a lot of insight into what’s working and what isn’t.

Imagine potential employees using your how-to articles to learn about the product or service prior to an interview. Would they ace the interview? Take notes and then edit your work.

Remember, with online how-to, you can’t ask if the user understands. You need to get it right the first time.