Want to create clear and engaging instructions? Be a better host.

Have you ever visited a friend or family member in a different city and left with the warm, fuzzy feeling of being appreciated and cared for? This positive impression likely wasn’t just because you had a comfortable place to rest your head. Rather, it was probably the result of the little gestures they put into planning for your stay. Including having your favorite coffee brewed, or pre-planning a tour or meal that they knew you’d enjoy. These gestures made the difference between feeling like a cherished guest in an exciting place, verses a visitor passing by. In other words, your friend or family member was a great host.

As mentioned in Instructions that Add Value, hosting is especially important in creating clear and engaging instructions and guides. When creating these types of communications, you’re usually trying to guide your user on a new product, service, or initiative. Think of these users like visitors who need guidance in an unfamiliar city.

But how can you become a better “host” in your instructions? Here are six tips to help you shift your mindset, meet your audience, and be more courteous and user-centered.


1. Share your goals to demonstrate relevance.

Users do not have to engage with, read, or use the instructions you create. In reality, your instructions are actually invitations for your audiences to engage with the information you want to share. If you share your goals early, your audiences can decide if your information offering is relevant to them or not. You can do this at many levels within your communication. You can write clear titles and headings, use concise introductions, or providing a more descriptive table of contents.


2. Provide the right amount of context.

Your target audience will include a mix of experts and novices. In your instructions, provide enough contextual information to accommodate both (and others in between). More often than not, your content developers are experts. They may assume that your audiences have a certain level of knowledge or understanding of a topic. This “curse of knowledge” can prevent your instructions from providing your users with the right point of reference. It can also slow their engagement, or even worse, cause errors or incorrect use. Not sure what is the right level of context for your topic? That is where user interviews and testing can really help.

Read “Context changes everything: Step back and take a look at the big picture.”

Don’t forget, there are many types of context. Providing context isn’t just about sharing historical or educational background. It is providing the related information to help your users more readily absorb information.

For example, let’s say you refer to product numbers often in your instructions. You may know your product numbers like the back of your hand and can point them out on any product. To help users decipher the logic behind your system, consider including a quick primer or cross-reference. Or, to help users easily locate product numbers, illustrate or explain where they can be found on your product. In some cases, it makes sense to direct your user elsewhere rather than include all the details in your instruction. Let’s say you also reference a lot of governmental regulations related to your products. Share the key points and then direct interested users to a link where they can learn the specifics.


3. Help users avoid missteps, frustrations, or issues.

A good host would never let their guests knowingly get into trouble. Instead, they’d make suggestions on proper local etiquette, efficient navigation advice, etc. When it makes sense, your instructions should do the same. When creating your communications, consider ways to include tips, cautions, checklists, quick references, or examples to help illuminate common missteps. If there is a known issue, it’s okay to give it a positive spin, but don’t hide it. Gliding over issues can sometimes cause more downstream problems in customer service calls, user frustration, or support requests.

By helping users be aware of potential trouble spots, you can position yourself as an expert. Additionally, you can speed absorption of information and action, and be more authentic to your audiences. All of which can bolster engagement and rapport.


4. Consider human factors and regional differences.

Another fact: No human in the world is exactly like you. This is a good thing, but it also makes it hard to create clear instructions that are used by many people that bring their own unique human factors and regional differences. Much like a host that must plan for a visitor with a broken leg or from a foreign country, be sure to think about the senses, availability, emotions, comprehension levels, physical attributes, and cognition limitations of your users when drafting or reviewing your current instructions.

These factors and differences can impact numerous design and content decisions, such as: type sizes, physical size or formats, the amount of copy within illustrations, sentence length and reading level, approach to universal measures and/or currency, language translations, accommodating different devices or technology, and more. A host of good communication takes these into consideration and plans for them—which is much easier than trying to do so after the fact.

Read “Human factors: Only Human? Plan for it.”


5. Be aware of time and environmental constraints.

People are often distracted, time-crunched, and looking ways to streamline their work. You can be a more gracious host by acknowledging time, use case, budget, and device constraints and doing what you can to help your users deal with them. For example, in designing a series of manuals for room scheduling technology, we created separate instructions for installers and IT teams to help limit the amount of information each needed to sort through, and also built-in consistent navigational cues and language to help users jump past sections of content if it didn’t apply to them. We also made the guide’s layout more conducive to printing for the installers who often do not have computer access, as well as screen-friendly for the IT teams who are heavy computer users.


6. Consider initial and future use from the start.

If you were hosting the same visitor in your home more than once, you’d likely no longer provide the basics about your city, but instead connect them a website that shares timely events they might want to attend. Similarly, in your instructions and related tools, be sure to consider first-time and future use from the start—which can help you make smarter decisions about form factor, organization, or navigation.

For example, when helping a client develop their approach to teaching their restaurant staff how to prepare specialty coffee drinks, we knew the staff changed frequently and the initial training needed to be done one the job. In addition, we knew that after initial training, front counter team members might need support in answering customer questions quickly. So, in our approach, we used simplified illustrations and a set of verbs that distilled the process down into a few rhythmic steps to help promote learning and future recall (“pick it, mark it, ice it, pump it, prep it, stir it, dress it, cap it”). In addition, to support consistent customer interactions and also build knowledge each of the new beverage products, we created a fan deck of handheld cards that explained how to phonetically pronounce each option, its ingredients and options, as well as sizes available for order.

. . .

As communication designers, much of what we do here at ThoughtForm is about creating tools that are good hosts to our clients’ users and audiences. The above tips are just a few of the ways you can improve how your communications to not only meets your users’ unique requirements, but discover opportunities to accommodate unarticulated (or even unknown) wants or needs. By coupling the power of hosting with clear communication, you can start to generate and share ideas and messages with your audiences in a manner that creates an impact — making every touchpoint with your organization more worthwhile.