Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Instructions must die. (Steve Krug)

I started out as a tech writer. I used to write manuals that would tell users how to use computer systems – hundred and hundreds of pages of instructions.

In fact, that’s how I got into usability.  The initial scenario would involve me going back to my developers and telling them that some particular feature took four of five pages to explain. 

“Could we make that a little simpler? What if we moved that bit to the next page, and got rid of this thing here? It might make more sense that way too, right?”

Over the years, developers started bringing me things to look at before I wrote them up. From there, it was a small step for asking for my input upfront, to letting me design a few things on my own – to even doing a little usability testing.

Now, that was a long, long time ago (we’re talking the ‘80s here, folks). It’s kind of strange how that instruction thing is still around though. 

Now, it’s been a long time since I saw – let alone worked on – a manual. What I’m talking about here, though, is something I often see in design or review meetings – basically, kind of a knee-jerk reaction to issues with fields or forms or pages to “just throw some instructions in there.” 

Now those instructions can appear at the top of the page, to the right of a field, under the field, in the field, in help, in FAQs, wherever … The real problem, however, is that nobody ever reads them.

And even if they do, they’re really just one more thing to add to the user’s cognitive load. Why can’t the action just be obvious on its own?  Why do we even need instructions? 

In Don’t Make Me Think, Steve Krug concentrates on boiling the instructions down. There are plenty of instances, though, where doing a little thinking can eliminate instructions altogether. 

My favorite example is probably the date or telephone number or Social Security number fields that won’t accept delimiters (you know, the / or -). Just strip ‘em out on the back end, and you can kiss those instructions goodbye.

Same thing for cash amounts

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