woman holding smartphone in a car
PHOTO: rawpixel

When is the last time you bought something and were excited about reading the instruction manual? Many companies know consumers don’t read manuals anymore and are saving paper by no longer including them. Instead, you will find an “easy start guide” or you can go online for help.

The same is true for web and app copy that gives us instructions. Few will read it, most will skim or completely ignore it. This behavior isn’t new. A 1997 study by the Nielsen Norman Group found that 79 percent of their test users scanned pages and only 16 percent read word-for-word. Not much has changed in over 20 years.

People don't want to read instructions for many reasons, including:

  • Lack of patience and/or time.
  • Believing it can’t be too hard and previous knowledge will be enough.
  • Confidence they'll be able to figure it out.
  • Feeling that needing instructions equals defeat.
  • Excitement to just get going with this new thing.

How Do You Write Instructions for an Audience Who Isn’t Reading?

The general rule of thumb in UX is: Don’t give people instructions. If you ask someone why they love their smartphone, the answer will likely be something along the lines of, “It just works.” This is how UX design should be approached; making design that is so intuitive, easy to learn and easy to use that the customer feels like, “it just works.”

Instructional copy, how-to’s, tutorials and guided tours can possibly send the customer the message: “We didn’t design this intuitively and we think you won’t figure it out. Now we are going to teach you what to do.” This can be construed by some as an insult, which makes them reject learning even more.

Some new products are offering, “a layer of visual clues and strategically placed content,” to help users understand the interface. Testimonials are sure these, “Click me,” overlays and other clues are improving the customer experience, though many reference internal training as where the product was used.

UX specialists and software development teams must challenge themselves to a higher standard. Whether the product is internal for employees or external for customers, the goal is to design things in a way that doesn't require help, overlays, tooltips or instructions.

Related Article: Why Design Today Hinges on Deleting Experiences and Reading Minds

Short Labels Can Be Helpful Without Feeling Like a Lecture

A shopping cart icon is possibly one of the best-known online paradigms in decades. We all know that we tap or click that to move to the shopping cart and later, our checkout. However, an unfamiliar icon can benefit from a text label helping people know what it means. A poor UX decision would be to use an unfamiliar icon and then provide explanation copy or a tooltip people have to activate.

Tooltips are easily a distraction and can be frustrating, especially if they are activated and displayed every time the mouse moves over the element. Tooltips are also less friendly on mobile phones, where we can’t hover to active them and we have way less screen real estate. Many modern websites are opting to replace tooltips with displaying minimal, urgent information more contextually.

Related Article: Designing for Simplicity of Use

Resist the Temptation to Explain the Interface

Samuel Hulick of UserOnboard.com suggests that when a user is experiencing something for the first time, make sure anything instructional passes these three tests:

  1. Integrated (not distracting). Keep people in the flow. Don’t distract them from where they naturally want or need to go. This hurts momentum and disengages them from their key activity and path.
  2. Empowering (not controlling). Don’t explain obvious things (e.g. “Clicking ‘Create Project’ creates a project!”). Make sure that any guidance aligns with the user’s needs and goals.
  3. Steadfast (not flaky). Don’t load people up immediately with a pile of tips for features they might not experience right away. Provide timely and contextual guidance in the moment as users are moving through your product, which may be a process of days, not minutes.

Especially in a lean environment focusing on building a minimum viable product and “just shipping it,” it can be tempting to design something that would require explanation. Software development teams often end up saying, “We’ll just train them to [do the non-intuitive thing].” Aim for the best user experience possible, the most intuitive, logical and well-laid out you can create. Test with real or archetypal users to see where they get frustrated, confused, disappointed, or distracted. Iterate to remove friction and ship something delightful.