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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.

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