Setting expectations

A lot of documentation contains step-by-step directions like this:

  1. Click the Add button.
  2. In the Name field, enter your first (given) name.
  3. Click the Save button.

This is a pretty poor, though common, practice. I’ve committed this offense against readers myself, because it’s so easy to do. Or, rather, it’s so easy to not do the important bit. Here’s what I should have done:

  1. Click the Add button. The What’s your name? dialog appears.
  2. In the Name field, enter your first (given) name.
  3. Click the Save button. The user list appears with your name added to the list.

The difference in the second case is that the steps not only tell the user what she should do, but it also gives her clues about what to expect from each action.

Setting expectations is hugely important, particularly with software. If you’ve ever done usability testing—or even some tech support for mom and dad—you’ve seen what happens when people don’t know what to expect. Someone successfully works through a series of steps, only to stop, unsure whether they’ve done the right thing even when they’ve worked through the steps flawlessly.

This happens when the person working through the steps doesn’t have a way to gauge her own success or failure. This problem is often minimized when working through directions for physical objects, since many of our real-world physical interactions have dramatic feedback. For example, if you wanted to tell someone how to start a car, turning the ignition typically has clear feedback, with simultaneous vibrations, sounds, and visual indicators to demonstrate success and failure.

While most user interfaces provide a minimum level of feedback on interactions (e.g., a button cycles through an animation when clicked), software, with its heavy abstraction from the physical world, frequently cannot provide a more visceral sense of success or failure. With the added complexity of numerous mouse clicks and button presses to complete even simple tasks, it’s no surprise that users get confused even when they’re doing everything right.

And that’s why it’s important to set expectations in your directions. It’s not enough to simply tell your audience what to do, you also have to show them what success looks like.

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