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HomeRants > How to organize a step-by-step procedure. > Put instructions into discrete steps. > How many steps?



 

Do not leave any action out.

Limit the number of steps in a procedure.

Bad example

How many steps?

Your procedure must be complete, but short. How can you manage that juggling act?

Your first priority must be to include every action that the user has to perform, to get to the goal.  If you forget a step, some people will fail, and many will curse you under their breath.

Do not leave any action out.

You'll be surprised when you write a procedure. You forget stuff.

Go over your first draft and make sure that you have not left out something critical, like "Press Return." Think moment to moment.

If you have done the task a hundred times, you will, inevitably, skip over "obvious" steps, because you are not even aware of them, as you go happily along.  Force yourself to test each procedure, following exactly.  As soon as you discover something left out, insert it.

I was testing a set of procedures on a group of about two dozen participants when I noticed that everyone had stopped at the same place. 

There was silence. 

Everyone was waiting for the result I had predicted.  But I had forgotten to say the magic words, "Press Return."

 Don't let this happen to you.

Additional detail on instructions:

Format steps so they stand out

Write short, energetic steps.

Separate explanations from steps

Resources:

Probe your audiences--gently.

Help (A chapter from Hot Text: Web Writing that Works. PDF: 995K, or about 18 minutes at 56K).

 

Limit the number of steps in a procedure.

If your procedure grows to more than a dozen steps, or so, consider breaking it up into several sub sections, each with its own heading. How come?

No one has to remember all the steps in a procedure, so we are not, here, talking about accommodating people's short term memory (as described by George Miller, back in 1956).  But when you have 56 steps for assembling the gizmo that you want to use to roll up your garden hose, you may get lost in the middle, or give up hope.

If you get much above a dozen steps, you lose people. Perhaps they need fewer steps than fingers, to keep track of their progress, get a sense of the shape of the procedure, handle it all within a few minutes. We don't know why, but we do know that having more than half a dozen steps risks error, and more than a dozen, well, MEGO. (My eyes glaze over).

To give people a feeling that they are getting somewhere, and to let them get a quick picture of a particular subtask, break up long procedures into a series of significant, but short, procedures. Present them in order.  Explain that the user must do these procedures one after another.  But because each procedure is fairly short, more people will succeed. Long procedures generally lead to errors.

Bad example:

This procedure is getting too long. People begin to get lost when they cannot see that they are getting near the end, or completing some important phase.

13. Enter the customer number.
You have now completed the Contact section of the invoice. You can now move on to the actual order.
14. Enter the product name in the first field under Order.
Improved example:

We divide the procedure up into a series of related procedures.

13. Enter the customer number.

You have now completed the Contact section of the invoice. You can now move on to the actual order, in the invoice.

 You can now fill out the order.

Filling out the Order

The Order is the light-grey section of the invoice. You use the Order area to list all the products that the customer wants.

1. Enter the product name in the first field under Order.

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Was I supposed to put shaving soap on this brush before I rubbed my face?

 

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