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This chapter is from the book

Focus on real tasks, not product functions

A real task is a task that users want to perform, regardless of whether they are using your product to do it. Tasks that are imposed by the product are artificial tasks. It is all too easy in technical writing to lose sight of the real tasks and get caught up in the tasks that are dictated by the product. When you live and breathe a product for months, you might forget that the user's tasks and the product's tasks are not necessarily the same.

Examples of real and artificial tasks are:

  • Users want to edit a table, but the writer introduces this task as "using the table editor" instead of "editing a table."

  • Users want to count the records in a file, but the writer introduces the task as "using the CNTREC utility" instead of "counting records with the CNTREC utility."

Sometimes the design of a product forces you to write about artificial tasks. For example, users want to create a graphic, but they must first set up a container to hold sets of graphics. In such cases, you can focus on the task instead of the design by writing about "organizing your graphics with containers" rather than "creating containers."

In the following lead-in to the steps, the writer makes the common mistake of describing the task in product-specific terms:


To use the InfoInstaller utility:

  1. Open the InfoInstaller window by typing infoinst at the command line.

  2. Complete the InfoInstaller window by specifying the installation parameters.

  3. Click OK. InfoInstaller installs InfoProduct.

The original introduction assumes that users understand the task in terms of the tool that they need to use to do the task. Although some users might know what InfoInstaller is, all users know what installation is.


To install InfoProduct:

  1. Type infoinst at the command line. The InfoInstaller window opens.

  2. Specify the installation parameters in the window.

  3. Click OK. InfoProduct is installed.

The revised introduction and steps separate the task from the tool so that users can relate to the real task of installing the product instead of to the tool that they use to do so.

The following introduction shows a topic that explains how to use the product rather than how to perform real tasks:


This topic explains how to use the following menu choices under File:


Opens an existing file.


Creates a file.

Save as

Saves to a new file with a different name.

The original text assumes that the user is examining the interface and wondering what each menu item does. This type of information is appropriate for contextual help (help that is relevant to where a user is in a product, such as help for the selected control), but not for a task topic. Users want information about how to do real tasks, not a list of the buttons and fields in the product interface.


This topic explains how to work with a document. You can do the following tasks:

  • Create a document

  • Open an existing document

  • Rename a document

The revision shows information that is presented in terms of real tasks.

By presenting the information from the perspective of tasks that users recognize and want to perform, you make the information more relevant to users.

The following topic presents the task in terms of the window that is used to do the task:




The original help topic tells the user how to use the window; it explains how to complete the fields in the window, but it never explains what real task the user is doing. The original help topic also contains extraneous information about the window that isn't pertinent to the real task.




The revised help topic presents the information in terms of the task that the user wants to do and the steps that are involved in the task.

Keep task steps focused on the real task. Avoid littering steps with feature "advertisements" unless the features are especially helpful to the user as part of the task. Apply the completeness guideline "Cover each topic in just as much detail as users need" on page 79.

The following help topic contains unnecessary information about features that is mixed in with the task:







Steps 2a and 2b in the original help topic are not part of the task. Clicking Cancel is also not part of the task. These are only features that users can use. If you document every feature like this, your tasks will become unwieldy and lose their focus. The revision shows the real steps of the task.

Always focus on real tasks, not artificial tasks, when you write task topics, headings, and steps.

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