Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Procedures: The Sacred Cow Blocking the Road

Accommodating the user with procedural information ...

"If this column’s title sounds familiar to you, the bad news is you’re getting old, but the good news is your memory hasn’t gone yet. It was the title of a presentation I gave at the STC conference in Anaheim ten years ago. However, many of the points I made in that talk are still relevant to user assistance today, so I would like to update some of them and offer some new thoughts as well.

When product teams ask technical writers to document software products, writers usually start their projects by analyzing the tasks users will perform when working with them. A task analysis generates a list of procedures—plus the supporting information users need to follow them—and eventually results in a document in which sequentially numbered instructions are the dominant type of information—neatly organized under user-centered task headings and preceded by enabling knowledge. It sounds ideal, classical even. The problem? Users don’t read procedures.

In spite of the respect and attention we give to the sequential, numbered steps that tell users how to achieve a given task, that form of information delivery just doesn’t match the typical user’s information-seeking behavior.
User Behavior

Two principles best describe how people use Help:

* People don’t go to Help unless they feel stuck.
* People stay in Help only until they feel unstuck.

It takes a surprisingly short amount of time for a user to feel unstuck. When I was a usability consultant, I used to advise clients to put the critical information in the first three words of a sentence. Here’s an example that demonstrates why this is important: The message “Create a directory for your XYZ product or click OK to use the default directory” often resulted in users unnecessarily creating a new directory and complaining about having to do so. The alternative, “Click OK to use XYZ product’s default directory, or if you want, create a new directory” was much more effective. Users often clicked OK without reading the whole message and suffered no harm—in fact, they did what the software developer preferred.

The three-word rule might seem restrictive, but it reflects the fact that good technical writers start instructions with a command verb that is closely followed by its direct object. Therefore, readers often have enough information to take action within three words. Unfortunately, that does not mean they have enough information to take the correct action."    (Continued via UXmatters)    [Usability Resources]


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