by David Dick
Reprinted from Usability Interface, Vol 7, No. 4, April 2001
My father taught me valuable lessons that I will never forget. He taught me how to maintain the family car, how to fix household appliances, and how to use garden equipment. Although would show me how to perform the task, he would stress that I read the instructions. His philosophy was based on the belief that instructions are written to teach and to prevent mistakes. What does this have to do with usability?
Instructions (also referred as procedures) should be easy to use, easy to understand, reflect best practice, and be written according to the context of use. Identifying the context of use is critical to designing instructions for usability. For example:
- Instructions for pitching a tent could include suggestions on best locations.
- Instructions for performing a tune-up on a car could also list the tools and equipment needed.
- Instructions for performing multiple tasks could include checklists.
Another aspect of designing instructions for usability is to understand how people use instructions.
- Some people read to learn and read to accomplish a task. In which case, conceptual information is necessary for using a new product. In other cases, structured lists suffice for people who prefer to skip and skim through the documentation.
- Other people don’t want to read instructions. They actually prefer to explore and to ask for help when they need it.
Moral of this story—Do all that you can to design instructions for usability but don’t overlook theuser’s responsibility to read the instructions.