The Importance of Testing Your Own Instructions

Today I received an e-blast instructing me to click on a link to go to the company’s website then to click a link on the website to complete some information. Not sure why they couldn’t just send me the direct link, but that’s fine, I’m savvy, I’ll navigate my way there. The problem was the link I was instructed to click on didn’t exist.

I browsed through the smattering of images and links on the site, making multiple attempts to find this page, but after so many clicks, I stopped and the following thoughts went through my head:

  • I’ve spent way too much time trying to find this link
  • If it was that important for me to go to this link, the sender would have made a much clearer path for me to follow
  • If it’s really that important for me to perform an action on this site, they will contact me again

Then I have to choose: do I reply and explain I can’t find the link or do I ignore it and hope they contact me again if it’s really that important?

These two questions are important for you to consider because if your customers choose the latter, you have failed in your marketing attempt and could lose your customers to someone who has enabled direct links to what your customers want.

Before ever sending any type of instructions to anyone, take the following steps to ensure success:

  1. Read through the complete steps to make sure they make sense
  2. Remove excess words to make the instructions as concise as possible
  3. Perform the steps you have written to ensure you haven’t left anything out. If you have, add it.
  4. Have someone else read the instructions to make sure they make sense. It is helpful to get someone from a different department who is unfamiliar with what you are instructing.
  5. Have that person perform the steps to ensure they can do so or if they have trouble following, they can pinpoint where the problem is
  6. Finalize the instructions, ensuring all questions have been covered, writing is simple and concise and the end-user can easily follow

Another project I worked on was writing the setup and rules for a series of backyard games my company manufactured. Because the products were designed and sourced by our product developer, I had no part in the design or parts included so my knowledge of each was minor, where the developer knew the products inside and out. This made it a wise choice for me, an outside source, to write the instructions.

I had photos of all the parts and the end product, so I started writing instructions based on how I thought it all went together. I reviewed and edited multiple times, then consulted with the designer. She helped me understand the importance of each step as well as the order of the steps.

For example, it was important to slide the sleeve of the volleyball net onto one pole section before fitting the 3 pieces of the poles together because a bolt would have prevented ease of sliding. Had I not known that, the end-user could have found out the hard way and already been frustrated with the product prior to even using it!

This peer review is incredibly helpful even for the most seasoned writer because it allows for an outside source, a regular person to serve from the point of view of a potential customer and let you know ahead of time whether or not your instructions are clear enough. In the end, a few extra steps can save you, your customers and customer service time spent trying to decipher otherwise unclear instruction.

What have been your experiences with instruction writing? Any horror stories of unclear writing or a catch that could have been a disaster?

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2 comments

  1. When I’m at work, I’ve had to create many different modules and tools to allow for the efficient handling of large data streams to allow for detailed analysis. As I will be moving to a new role early next year, I have to ensure that the person stepping into my role will be able to use the tools I have created. Ensuring that all my vba code has appropriate comments and a step by step work instruction is critical. Something that may seem obvious to the developer will be unknown to anyone else – running through the instruction set is the only way to ensure they are valid.

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  2. This is a great point, submeg. I don’t think enough companies stress the importance of process documentation. While cross-training is vital, so is all the knowledge that exists only in employees’ heads. If you were to pick two random people from your work and imagine if they didn’t show up to work one day and couldn’t be reached, how easily could someone else take over their job? While that knowledge is seen as job security, it can also lead to hiccups in a smooth business process and negatively affect the entire work environment, as well as the customers.

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