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Chapter 2. Task orientation > Provide clear, step-by-step instructions

Provide clear, step-by-step instructions

Steps make up most tasks. Occasionally a task has only one step and can be described in a paragraph, but most tasks are performed as a series of ordered steps. Task orientation extends to the level of the lowest step. Any step that is not clearly written or not ordered correctly can cause your users to make mistakes and be unable to do a task.

When you write task information, you are usually in a position to notice usability problems in time to suggest product improvements. For example, you might identify cumbersome steps that can be streamlined or avoided, or steps where users are repeating actions that they've already performed (such as typing a long serial number in more than one window). If you have difficulty documenting a task, consider whether there might be a problem with the way that the product works. Keep the needs and interests of your users in mind as you write; there is no such thing as a product that is too usable. In fact, the more usable a product is, the less users must rely on low-level step information.

Take the time to organize your steps from your users' perspective. Know the answers to these questions: How do tasks relate to each other? When are steps subtasks? What constitutes a step? Where does a step start and end? Are some steps subordinate to others? Which steps are optional? Which steps are conditional?

The following guidelines can help you provide clear step-by-step instructions:

  • Make each step a clear action for users to take.

  • Group steps for usability.

  • Clearly identify optional steps.

  • Identify criteria at the beginning of conditional steps.

Make each step a clear action for users to take

Each step should correspond to an action (high level or low level) that the user performs. Tasks do not discuss how the user and product interact; tasks list only the actions that the users do to complete their task.

A step isn't complete unless it has an action for the user to do. One of the following steps has no user action:

Original

3.
Click OK.

4.
The installation begins.

5.
After installation completes, restart your system.


Revision

3.
Click OK. The installation begins.

4.
After installation completes, restart your system.


In the original set of steps, step 4 describes a product action, not a user action. In the revision, step 4 is combined with step 3 because it is the result of step 3, not a separate step.

To ensure that each step gives clear direction to users, include an imperative verb (a verb that instructs the user to take an action) in the first sentence of every step. When you make style decisions for your product, you might pick a specific way to phrase step-level information. For example, you might choose to “place” your user before stating the user action, as in “In the first column of the table, type the date.” Alternatively, you might choose to put the user action before the placement, as in “Type the date in the first column of the table.” Both approaches include the imperative verb in the first sentence of the step.

Some decisions are trickier than others. Consider the following set of steps:

Original

3.
Click OK.

4.
The InfoUpdater should stop.

  • If it doesn't stop, repeat steps 2 and 3.

  • If it does stop, go to step 5.

5.
Run the InfoVerify tool to check for viruses.


Revision

3.
Click OK. InfoUpdater should stop.

4.
If the InfoUpdater is not stopped, repeat steps 2 and 3.

5.
Run the InfoVerify tool to check for viruses.


Step 4 of the original set of steps breaks the rule of including an imperative verb in the first sentence of every step. Step 4 is not a step. In the revision, step 4 includes an imperative verb and is easier for users to follow.

Group steps for usability

Group steps to help users relate to the task. If you instruct users to do one action or click after another, the task can become mind numbing for the user. If you can group minor steps together into a larger step, users can think of the steps in relation to the goal of completing the task.

For example, instead of interpreting the steps as “First I click here, then I fill out that field, then I click over there, then I choose a button here,” users might be able to think of the steps in terms of “First I set my preferences, then I specify the server information.” In this way, you not only help users relate to the steps that they are doing, you also streamline the steps and make each step easier for users to find.

The following steps are in the correct order, but they don't correspond to the way that the user thinks about the task:

Original

To add a setting to your profile:

1.
Select the profile object that you want and right-click.

2.
Select Properties from the menu.

3.
In the Properties window, find the name and path of the profile file.

4.
Close the Properties window.

5.
Open your profile file in a text editor.

6.
Add the setting to your profile file in the settings section.

7.
Save the profile file.

8.
Run the profile command with the -file YourProfileName option.


The original set of steps gives each step the same weight. It treats trivial steps, such as closing a window, the same way that it treats more significant steps, such as running the command. The original set of steps ignores the relationship of each step to its surrounding steps.

Revision

To add a setting to your profile:

1.
Determine the name of the profile file that you want to add the setting to:

a. Right-click the profile object that you want and select Properties from the menu.

b. In the Properties window, find the name and path of the profile file.

2.
Update the profile file with the new setting:

a. Open your profile file in a text editor.

b. Add the setting to your profile file in the settings section.

c. Save the profile file.

3.
Run the profile command with the -file YourProfileName option.


The revised set of steps shows the relationships of some of the steps to each other and shows how they make up the two higher-level steps: finding the name of the file and updating the file. The revised set of steps also downplays some of the trivial steps by merging them or omitting them. Where the original set of steps shows a linear progression of one action or click after another, the revised set of steps shows what each step accomplishes toward completing the whole task. Also, by combining the steps into higher-level steps, the revision minimizes the number of steps.

Unordered lists, or bulleted lists, provide another way to subordinate information or actions in steps. Be sure to use unordered lists only for tasks that are not sequential. You could use an unordered list to show, for example, more than one way to do a step.

The following set of steps uses unordered lists to try to get both a new user and a returning user through the first two windows needed for a task:

Original

To purchase tickets online:

1.
Go to www.e-infoticket.com.

2.
Select one of the choices.

  • If you are a new user, click Register.

  • If you registered before, click I Have an Account.

3.
Complete the fields on the form.

  • If you are a new user, the form requires a credit card number.

  • If you are a returning user, specify your password.

4.
Click Select Tickets to Purchase.

5.
Choose the tickets that you want.

6.
Click Submit and wait a few seconds for a confirmation message.

  • If a message tells you that the tickets are purchased, write down or print the confirmation number. You have finished.

  • If no message appears, repeat steps 5 and 6.


In the original set of steps, both the new user and existing user need to read both step 2 and step 3 to figure out what to do. The original steps are focused on the product, not the flow of the task.

Revision

To purchase tickets online:

1.
Go to www.e-infoticket.com.

2.
If you are a new user, set up an account:

a. Click Register.

b. Specify your credit card number and a name and password for your account.

c. Click Submit. When the account is set up, a message will tell you to proceed.

3.
Click I Have an Account.

4.
Specify your name and password.

5.
Click Select Tickets to Purchase.

6.
Choose the tickets that you want.

7.
Click Submit and wait a few seconds for a confirmation message.

  • If a message tells you that the tickets are purchased, write down or print the confirmation number. You have finished.

  • If no message appears, repeat steps 6 and 7.


In the revision, step 2 is used to prepare the new user for the remaining steps. Thus both types of users can follow one clear set of steps.

When you use sublists to group steps, be sure to use the right type of sublist for the situation. The following example shows a step divided into substeps:

Original

3. Copy the contents of the file system from the source disk to the target disk. The steps that you use depend on the location of the target disk:

  1. If the target disk is on the same computer as the source disk, run the copyfilesystem command.

  2. If the target disk will replace the source disk, follow these steps:

    1. Copy the contents of the source disk to tape.

    2. Replace the source disk with the target disk.

    3. Configure the target disk.

    4. Copy the tape contents to the target disk.


In the original step, ordered substeps are used to show two choices that are mutually exclusive. Because the choices are not meant to be performed in order, the substeps are misleading.

Revision

3. Copy the contents of the file system from the source disk to the target disk. The steps that you use depend on the location of the target disk:

  • If the target disk is on the same computer as the source disk, run the copyfilesystem command.

  • If the target disk will replace the source disk, follow these steps:

    a. Copy the contents of the source disk to tape.

    b. Replace the source disk with the target disk.

    c. Configure the target disk.

    d. Copy the tape contents to the target disk.


In the revision, the substeps are replaced with bulleted options. Users follow the instructions in one bullet or the other.

Clearly identify optional steps

Optional steps are steps that a user can skip and still complete the task successfully. As mentioned in the guideline “Focus on real tasks, not product functions” on page 27 of this chapter, try to keep your tasks free of feature clutter by eliminating steps that are superfluous to the task. However, in cases where optional steps support the task, include them in the task, but identify them as optional. For example: “2. Optional: Define a profile for your startup parameters.”

The following list of steps identifies step 1 as optional, but not step 2:

Original

1.
Optional: Click Timeout Settings to specify timing settings for the profile. The Timeout Settings window opens.

2.
In the Timeout Settings window, specify the number of seconds before the system is to restart.


The original set of steps is confusing. Users who choose to skip step 1 are unable to do step 2. Because step 2 can be done only if the user follows step 1, step 2 must also be optional.

First revision

1.
Optional: Click Timeout Settings to specify timing settings for the profile. The Timeout Settings window opens.

2.
Optional: In the Timeout Settings window, specify the number of seconds before the system is to restart.


The first revision shows both steps as optional. However, the first revision is still not logical because users who choose not to perform step 1 cannot perform step 2. So step 2 is not optional by itself.

Second revision

1.
Optional: Specify timing settings for the profile:

a. Click Timeout Settings to open the Timeout Settings window.

b. Specify the number of seconds before the system is to restart.


The second revision shows step 1 as an optional step that consists of two substeps. If users choose to follow step 1, they must perform both steps 1a and 1b, which is the only combination that makes sense.

Take care to clearly identify optional steps. Use “Optional” for optional steps. However, do not follow the word “Optional” with the phrase “If you want to” or “You can” because these phrases are redundant with the word “Optional.”

Identify criteria at the beginning of conditional steps

Conditional steps are those that users follow only if certain criteria apply. Conditional steps generally begin with the word “If,” as in, “If you run test cases in batch mode, complete the fields on the Batch page.” Users who meet the criteria for the step must follow the step. Always start conditional steps with the condition. That way, users who do not meet the criteria can skip the step after reading the condition.

Although the following steps are conditional, users might find themselves halfway through the steps before they realize that they don't need to do them.

Original

1.
Register your computer as a client if you are not yet registered on the LAN.

2.
In the Number field, specify your 12-digit serial number if your software is not yet registered.

3.
Run the InfoExec program to reconfigure your settings. (InfoExtended only)


Because users rarely read ahead when following steps, the original steps might cause some users to take links that do not apply to them, start typing serial numbers, or try to run programs that they don't need.

Revision

1.
If you are not yet registered on the LAN, register your computer as a client.

2.
If your software is not yet registered, in the Number field, specify your 12-digit serial number.

3.
InfoExtended only: Run the InfoExec program to reconfigure your settings.


In the revised steps, the condition for each step is stated before the action. Users who are registered on the LAN can skip step 1, users who registered their software can skip step 2, and users who are not using InfoExtended can skip step 3.

The following step is introduced in a potentially confusing way:

Original

3. To specify the date parameter, click New.


Users might read the original step as optional, required, or conditional. The revisions show more specific phrasing for all three situations.

Revision: optional

3. Optional: Click New to specify the date parameter.


Revision: required

3. Click New to specify the date parameter.


Revision: conditional

3. If your date parameter is not defined, click New to specify it.


Take care to clearly identify conditional steps. Use “If” and state conditions early for steps that do not apply in all situations.

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