Home > Articles

  • Print
  • + Share This
This chapter is from the book

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

  1. Click OK.

  2. The installation begins.

  3. After installation completes, restart your system.

Revision

  1. Click OK. The installation begins.

  2. 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

  1. Click OK.

  2. The InfoUpdater should stop.

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

    • If it does stop, go to step 5.

  3. Run the InfoVerify tool to check for viruses.

Revision

  1. Click OK. InfoUpdater should stop.

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

  3. 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:

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

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

  2. Update the profile file with the new setting:

    1. Open your profile file in a text editor.

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

    3. 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:

    1. Click Register.

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

    3. 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:

    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 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:

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

    2. 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.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020