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Good instructions?

by Steve Krause on October 8th, 2014

By next week, you’ll need to decide what you want to write instructions about: converting a PDF into an editable Google document; setting up offline access using Google Drive; or creating a Google form (which is what I use for the surveys, by the way). Google has good FAQs for this stuff that can help you figure out how to do these things before writing your own instructions. And I am okay with you borrowing some ideas from Google’s FAQs and other instruction resources; you just can’t outright plagiarize these things. So you will need to give credit where credit is due in your memo to me and to acknowledge that in the instructions themselves.

Just remember that the assignment is not really about me testing you learning how to use these Google tools; rather, the assignment is about you writing instructions to explain how to use these tools to a user who isn’t familiar with them.

Speaking of good instructions: what sort of examples do folks have out there for good instructions? I have in mind things online that you can share with a link in the comments below, though if there are other kinds of instructions you want to share, you can mention them too.

Just to get started with this: I am a big fan of the site Instructables, though I have to say I am not exactly a “DIY” on a regular basis.  But they do a good job on providing step-by-step instructions along the lines of what you should have in mind for this assignment. A simple example: how to make a bottle cap magnet.

Anyway, share some “good” instructions and let’s talk about some of the characteristics of them: what makes for good instructions? What are the necessary components? How do these “good examples” of instruction line up with the “how to” advice on writing instructions we discussed last week?

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44 Comments
  1. LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

    On the Instructables site, my favorite how to was building the Rem costume. Rem, although a despicable character, is from one of my favorite mangas, Death Note. It was unbelievable what this girl created by starting off with just duct tape. Wow.

    And she included a lot of step-by-step pictures, which ALWAYS help with directions.

    • Nijea Wilson permalink

      Hi LeeAnne, I get so confused when I don’t have step-by-step pictures. It makes things so much easier when you’re making something to have a visual of what its supposed to look like.

      • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

        When I assemble furniture, I never read the instructions :-X

        • Melanie Waller permalink

          It drives me crazy when people don’t read the instructions first. I usually spill everything on the floor and then let the other person get settled in to put together whatever the project might be. I usually read the instructions and find the parts that are to go together and hand them over. I have found that reading instructions is easier than finishing and have a hundred million pieces left over.

        • Nijea Wilson permalink

          Lol! me neither

        • Brian Gardner permalink

          I’m way too stubborn for instructions, I think part of the fun is figuring it out yourself (and fixing your mistakes).

          • Steve Krause permalink

            Well, two slight tangents:

            * Part of what marks good design in the first place is you can at least begin using whatever product without having to read a bunch of instructions.

            * Sometimes, especially with more complicated things, you have to have instructions, and sometimes, especially with dangerous things, those instructions become really really important. I teach at the graduate level an essay about the legal implications of bad instructions with a lawsuit against a nail gun manufacturer where people were killed by this device. In part, they blamed bad instructions.

      • Jessica Kane permalink

        I agree about the pictures! It really does help to have a visual so you can be a little more confident that you are doing what the instructions are telling you to do.

      • Chelsea Idzior permalink

        I completely agree! If I can, I might skim the instructions and then just use the pictures as a guideline.

    • Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

      LeeAnne, this is a complete side note, but I love Death Note! It was the first manga series I ever read. My favorite shinigami is definitely Ryuk, not Rem, though.

      But in reference to having photos, I agree. I follow a lot of craft/costuming blogs, and the photo are extremely helpful for trying to recreate a product.

      • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

        I have strong feelings of loathing toward Rem. Obviously, I am a diehard L fan. Lol.

  2. Nijea Wilson permalink

    This is a very interesting site. There were so many different creative things that people made and there were some that had really good directions. I believe that the two links below provided really good instructions. They initially informed you of all the materials you would need to complete the project and they made very simple step by step directions along with images (I can read directions and still be completely confused but if you give me pictures it makes the process so much easier). They weren’t very wordy with their instructions and didn’t make the process seem really difficult. Being able to give simple, straight to the point directions that aren’t confusing or hard to follow is a tough thing to do.

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Phone-holder-1/

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Fancy-Leather-Feather-Earrings/

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      Oh, wow…I feel silly for not thinking of the phone holder myself! As I was reading through, I thought “I have that, and that, and…and…yep. I’m doing that tomorrow”. Very easy-to-follow instructions here. However, I would note that Velcro is something in which most people have some experience using.

      As far as the Fancy Leather Feather Earrings, I was actually pretty lost. I am not a crafty person so this whole thing seemed a little foreign to me. I think the way the pictures are all bunched together at the top of each step with no reference to the sub-instruction to which they belong made these instructions harder to follow. For instance, I would be confused on where to “tape the next layer” in the middle of step two.

      This is probably personal preference and may make perfect sense to someone who has a little more experience making jewelry. I don’t know much about this kind of stuff so I am not sure I’m the target audience.

      • Nijea Wilson permalink

        The velcro phone holder was something I should’ve thought about a long time ago. It was so simple to do and seems like it would definitely make a difference in the car. The earring directions did seem a tad bit cluttered but looked really interesting.

  3. Melanie Waller permalink

    Since I have worked with food all my life, could I write instructions on how to make “Acorns”. They are simple and fun to eat when done. It doesn’t take long either to make or eat. Or I could write instructions on how to make “Pilgrim Hats”, or “Turkeys” (big and little)

    • Steve Krause permalink

      Ha! No, read the assignment carefully. You have three choices about what to write instructions about:

      * Converting a PDF into an editable Google Document
      * Setting up offline access using Google Drive
      * Creating a basic Google Sites web page

      What we’re doing here is just sharing some examples of good instructions to get a sense of what characterizes them. What are some of the patterns you see in well-done instructions?

      • Melanie Waller permalink

        creating food is just as hard

        • Steve Krause permalink

          Oh, that’s not the issue– I agree with you there. It’s just that for the purposes of the assignment, I want everyone to do instructions on one of these three things. Why? Well:

          * If everyone did instructions on whatever they already knew, none of the rest of us would necessarily know if those instructions were reasonably accurate or not.

          * This will give you a chance to compare with others the instructions you did– also something that would be hard to do if everyone did their own thing.

          * One of the things that professional/technical writers have to do in the workplace when they are asked to write instructions is to learn how whatever they are writing instructions for works. That wouldn’t be happening if it was something you already knew how to do.

          * This is my way of also getting all of you to learn more about the technology/tool that is Google docs.

          • Brian Gardner permalink

            I was wondering at first why we did such specific assignments. It sure makes it easier to give thorough peer evaluations when we’re trying to carry out the same task.

  4. Elyse Cawetzka permalink

    What I liked about this site was that they show you pictures as well as written instructions. I feel like a lot of people learn in different ways and by doing this it covers all types of learners. I’ve never heard of this site before, it’s pretty cool!

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      Last week, I was just talking to a friend about her amazing craft-abilities and told her I was going to try to do a tied fleece blanket. She suggested the instructables site as a starting point.

      I think another thing that good instructions could do on top of pictures and sub-instructions to help clarify is to liken it to something the audience has probably seen or done before. I can’t think of any good examples but maybe something like “…Dip the candle wick slowly and carefully into the pot containing the hot wax then slowly and carefully remove the wick. Repeat until the wax around the wick is about the thickness of a large carrot”. I think most people have a good idea of the size of a large carrot (hopefully!) but not everyone can eyeball an inch or two thickness.

      • Sabrina Gissendaner permalink

        I absolutely agree with you Jessica! Whenever I am reading instructions it definitely helps me to be able to visualize something that I am familiar with. Like you said, it’s not as easy to eyeball something as it is to get it to a state that you associate with something else. People who are looking up instructions are more than likely people who have no experience with something, and therefore need whatever they’re doing to be made as simple as possible. For myself, having a familiar reference point makes things a lot easier.

      • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

        That’s a good idea. Try to appeal to the average man, and not the mathematician.

  5. Jessica Kane permalink

    “Instructables” was the first site that I visited when looking for my no-sew blanket instructions. I found that I didn’t like these instructions after I read them. I don’t think that they were bad, but the finished product looked a little…meh…

    http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Make-a-Tied-Fleece-Blanket/

    However, after looking at a few more, I preferred the “WikiHow” site. I was a little spoiled with the .gifs but, the combination of looking at the instructions/pictures from the”instructables” site along with this other set of instructions, I felt much better about making my blanket. Like I had mentioned prematurely on Professor Krause’s post from yesterday, I feel the .gifs were nice, but unnecessary – simple pictures could have done the job – but I eventually chose this set of instructions because each step was only a sentence or two. I had forgotten to mention that there were little tips below each step on how to complete them in case you needed further information, which is something the “instructables” version did not have. I think this was a great idea on the part of the writer. This person knew that his/her audience probably has limited experience on the subject matter or they wouldn’t have been looking for instructions in the first place.

    http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Fleece-Tie-Blanket

    • Steve Krause permalink

      Great examples and comparison for instructions showing you how to do the same thing. I often like comparing instructions like that, especially if I’m looking for instructions for something I don’t know anything about ahead of time!

  6. Kourtney Lovett permalink

    Since I moved into my apartment in August, I’ve been working on adding recipes to my collection. So, when I went onto the instructables website, I immediately began to look at food recipes. On the website, I found a recipe for Apple Strudel Muffins (http://www.instructables.com/id/Apple-Strudel-Muffin/). Like everyone else, I like that the instructions included pictures. Pictures are extremely helpful when cooking because I am able to see what the food should look like step-by-step. I also liked that the instructions themselves were succinct and easy to understand.

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      They look delicious! I didn’t really look at the steps all that much and I still feel as though I could make these. When looking at the instructions as a whole, I feel the words followed the pictures and not the other way around, if that makes any sense. Interestingly, I think I followed what the pictures were “saying” and used the words to clarify, which probably speaks to my learning preference more than anything. I feel I have a new perspective on instructions – and myself. Thanks for sharing!

    • Elyse Cawetzka permalink

      I’m the same way. When cooking, pictures definitely help. Without them, I feel like I am making it wrong and it turns out looking weird even though it is perfectly fine. In my opinion, I think that we take pictures as a means of doing it “right” even though in reality, it shouldn’t look exactly the same as the one on the instructions because there is always going to be some sort of variable that is different because we all do things in our own manner. Cooking is one of the few instructions that I really count on both pictures and written instructions. The written are important to me because often times there is a specific order in which the ingredients have to be added or mixed together and you can’t always get that just by looking at the picture.

      • melanie waller permalink

        But always remember, the picture is set up. Sometimes the actual product does not look that way. I like pictures also, but there are times when I know that the picture and what I made are not the same. Taste is great, but sometimes presentation goes out the window. I do understand that people eat with their eyes, but when I get a big rush of hungry people at work, sometimes the motto is “they are gonna eat it, not admire it”. 🙂

  7. Carly permalink

    Professor Krause- This may be a dumb question, but since I discussed creative commons and licensing with you in 354 today, I’m curious. Often times, I see screen shots on instructions websites that involve an image of a downloading window or pictures of the pointer arrow about to click on a link, just as guidelines. So I’m wondering, how do you give credit to the page you’re taking a screen shot of? Is writing instructions the same in that I’ll have a works cited page?

    In regards to instructables, I’m as amused as everyone else seems to be! It’s fascinating! What a cool website idea.

    • Steve Krause permalink

      I think you basically want to cite your sources for a screen shot the same way you would for anything else, though for the purposes of our project here, I am not going to worry too much about citation of various google sites– assuming you are making your screen shots and not taking them from someplace else. It seems to me that if you are doing the instructions on converting a PDF in Google Docs (for example) and you have a screen shot of a Google Drive screen, we will all understand where that is coming from.

  8. Sabrina Gissendaner permalink

    One of the things that is immediately apparent to me in the bottle cap magnet instructions is that they are only three steps long. For me, the fewer the steps the better! Each step does contain a good amount of detail, but the fact that there aren’t more than three steps is comforting. I think that seeing a long list of instructions can be pretty daunting. At the same time, seeing a short list with hardly any detail can be equally as daunting. Basically, I think it’s important for instructions to be “short and sweet.” I also like that there are pictures, although they may not always be practical when giving instructions. Some people learn better visually than they do by reading instructions. I guess that if pictures are relevant to the subject matter, then it’s good to use them. They help me, anyways!

    • Steve Krause permalink

      That’s a good point, Sabrina. But the tricky thing is it is sometimes hard to figure out how many steps you need, and a lot of it depends on the user you are imagining using these instructions. This is one of the reasons why you will all have to do a usability test where you get someone not in the class to try to follow your instructions. This is a good way to spot missing steps in your instructions.

      • LeeAnne Baumdraher permalink

        This might sound horrible, but when I write instructions for something, I try to dumb it down. It’s not that I think the people who would be reading them are unintelligent, but I want to make sure there are no mistakes. Fool proof is a great way to go.

    • Nijea Wilson permalink

      Its definitely difficult to try to decide how many steps to have and how much information to have in each step. If its something I know absolutely nothing about I want as much information as possible even if it seems dumb to put it but if its something Im familiar with all I need is a couple steps and a picture of what the finished product should look like.

  9. Natasha Wickenheiser permalink

    Like most of our class, I also really enjoyed browsing through the Instructables website. Photos are great for helping with instruction.

    I find a lot of great instructions on YouTube. If I don’t know how to do something, I usually look for YouTube tutorials. That’s how I learned to cross stitch, crochet, and use Photoshop. It is also where my best friend learned to make a home-made bald cap (which are far superior to the ones you can purchase around Halloween), and where my dad learned to solder circuit boards.

    As an example, I just watched this tutorial on dutch braiding a few weeks ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=muqfT7Sy5is The video quality of tutorials can vary, but I find that YouTube instructions tend to be fairly decent. Plus, I can pause, rewind, and re-watch steps that confuse me.

    • Jessica Kane permalink

      I sometimes forget about YouTube and how useful it can be for things like that! I think it depends on the subject matter but I have watched a walk-thru or two when I’ve been stuck in a dungeon in a game. I think that would be harder to do by text alone.

      Thanks for the video! I didn’t know how to do this and now I do!

      • Steve Krause permalink

        Absolutely, and as a slight tangent, I have thought about shifting this assignment to one where everyone uses video to make instructions in large part because that is such a popular genre on YouTube. Do a search for “how to” almost anything on YouTube and you’re liable to find some help.

  10. Ashleigh Swinehart permalink

    Has anyone ever wanted step-by-step instructions, Google searched, and ended up on Wiki How? If not, let me just preface by saying the site is nice, since I have found decent instruction guides from there, but where the site lacks is in getting to the point, so to speak. For example, I once wanted to find a fairly simple tutorial/instruction guide on how to make a sailor fuku, found a few, but the problem with Wiki How is they seem to repeat too much instead of just getting on with the rest of the instructions. I like semi-short instruction guides, but not too short where I am having to guess just exactly what the instructor wants me to do. My favorite guides are ones with at least 6-7 steps, and up to 10, but anything above and beyond that (unless the guide is for something super difficult) gets redundant and boring.

    • melanie waller permalink

      I agree. I want plain, simple and straight to the point on instructions. Too many make me nervous and I feel that I can’t accomplish this task if it takes 100 steps.

    • Brian Gardner permalink

      I think I’ve used WikiHow before, it’s a pretty useful site. But like most sets of instructions, I do best with more than one (I’ll google a lot of things that I don’t understand clearly in my textbooks, for instance). It gives me a more rounded, multidimensional understanding of concepts.

  11. Kristen Smith permalink

    In general, I tend to find WikiHow’s instructions to be helpful and easy to follow. I like that the language on the sight is simplistic and tends to stay away from the jargon of whatever project the instructions are helping you through. Also, WikiHow offers instructions on how to a vast variety of things, so I tend to look there first when embarking on something I’m wary of. The following link happens to be instructions on how to change the oil in a car. These instructions are a bit more complex than other instructions on the sight, but changing your oil is a bit complex as well, so I feel it’s fitting.

    http://www.wikihow.com/Change-the-Oil-in-Your-Car

    • Steve Krause permalink

      I like these instructions too because they are a nice mix of text and images and they also work through step by step. Though I still think I’ll get someone else to change my oil– too big of a mess.

  12. Leah permalink

    The Instructables website has a lot of cool, different, and horrid ideas on how to create objects. The one that I enjoyed the most was the “Silicone Box Mold For Prop Making”. Bring that I love to draw I found it cool that someone had sketched a picture of the object to make it appear identical.

    Very cool website.

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