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 and efforts that your friend or family member put into planning for your stay—such as having your favorite coffee brewed or pre-planning a tour or meal that they knew you’d enjoy. These gestures made the difference between your feeling like a cherished guest in an exciting place, verses just a visitor passing by. In other words, your friend or family member was a great host.

As mentioned in our recent white paper about Instructions that Add Value, being a good host is especially important in creating clear and engaging instructions and user guides. When creating these types of communications, you’re usually trying to guide your user on a new product, service, or initiative—much like a visitor needs 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 where they are, and be more courteous and user-centered.

1. Share your goals to demonstrate relevance.

Little known fact: users actually do not have to engage with, read, or use the instructions you create. (Gasp! Crazy, right?!) In reality, your instructions (and most other communication types) are actually invitations to your audiences to engage with the information or ideas you want to share. And, if you share your goals early and clearly, you’ll give your audiences the courtesy and opportunity to decide if the information you’re providing is relevant to them or not. You can do this at many levels within your communication: by providing a view into the underlying structure of your guide, writing clearer titles and headings, using concise introductions and section pre-ambles, or a providing deeper, more descriptive table of contents (to name just a few).

2. Provide the right amount of context.

Depending on your topic, some users within your target audience might be experienced, while others novices. In your instructions, provide enough contextual information to accommodate both (and others in between). More often than not, you’re content developers are experts, and 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 or guide from providing your users with the right point of reference, 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.

And 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. But to help users decipher the logic behind what a model number sequence actually means, it might be helpful to include a quick primer or cross-reference. Or, to help users more easily locate product numbers, it might be beneficial to illustrate or explain where product numbers can be found on your product. In some cases, it might make 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. It might be best to share the key points and then direct users to a link if they are interested in learning 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, advice on how to best get from point A to point B, 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 and possible opportunities for your audience(s). If there is a known issue, it’s okay to give it a positive spin, but don’t sweep them under the carpet. Gliding over issues or omitting them can sometimes cause more downstream problems in customer service calls, user frustration, support requests, etc.

By helping users be aware of potential trouble spots as well as opportunities, you can position yourself as an expert, 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.

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.



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