Six Tips For Writing User Interface Instructions
When people are online, their behavior is often driven by specific goals. They have things
to accomplish, such as making a purchase, learning how to play guitar or finding a recipe for
dinner. In many web page designs, therefore, is information to help a user perform an action.
For example, if you design a button that must be clicked to reach a desired goal, such as placing
items in a shopping cart, then slightly rounding the corners of the button and placing a shadow
beneath indicates to users that the shape can be clicked. In addition to these types of visual
cues, we often write instructions to assist users in knowing what to do next. These instructions
guide the eyes and minds of the user to understand how to take the next appropriate action.
Understand What the User is Thinking
Designing and writing the instructions that are part of the user interface design is
both an art and science, involving copywriting and design skills as well as an understanding
of how people use mental models. Mental models are a generalized idea of how things work. They
are an efficient and speedy cognitive mechanism. People apply their mental models to new situations
so they don't need to relearn everything from scratch. This means people will apply their stereotype
or mental model of similar websites to how your website works. For example, experienced users
have a mental model about how to find articles in an article directory. They know they can
most likely browse by topic or search by keyword.
The Value of Instructions
This is one of the main reasons user interface instructions are so important. People
have an unpleasant experience when their mental models are inaccurate or incorrect. It causes
frustration, user errors and a failure to accomplish a goal. A frustrated user might look for
another website that's easier to use.
Writing easy to understand instructions and presenting them aesthetically can ward off
these types of problems. Good instructions will guide website visitors, even if their mental
models are imprecise or erroneous. Because instructions can make or break a user's experience,
here are some guidelines for writing user interface instructions that I've gleaned from years
of designing online learning as well as gems from usability research.
1. Analyze Your Audience
You could say that the advice, 'Know your audience' is an overused cliche. On the other
hand, you have nothing without an audience, so site visitors are of primary importance. Analyze
your audience so you know their characteristics. When you know the characteristics of your
audience, you can imagine them and direct your words to them. Unless your visitors are a savvy,
homogeneous group, it's best to assume they'll need some guidance to achieve their goals.
2. Not Too Short; Not Too Long
When writing user interface instructions, include enough detail so users know exactly
what to do, but not so much detail that it becomes difficult to process the information. People
can only process small amounts of information at one time.
You can help the situation by writing instructions in plain and simple language, which
should help visitors accomplish their tasks efficiently and quickly. Try to use short sentences
when possible. For example, this sentence could easily be broken into two: 'Click the Add to
Cart button, then click Check Out at the top of the screen.'
3. Remove Extraneous Information
This guideline goes along with the brevity advice above, but is often best to do at the
end of the writing process. At the end, you look at your writing from a different perspective.
It's easier to see which information is irrelevant, because it adds to the confusion quotient.
Deleting extraneous and superfluous details will tighten up the final copy.