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January 15, 2018  |  Signposting in documentation  |  599 hit(s)

Suppose you're on vacation and you're driving to a place named Lisbon Falls. You see this sign, so you turn right.

After you turn, you drive for a long time, but you don't see Lisbon Falls, and you start to doubt that you're on the right road. How helpful would it be to see a sign that said "Lisbon Falls—keep going "?

Obviously, we need signposts to tell us where to turn. But sometimes we need signposts to reassure us that we're going the right way. Since I work in documentation, I'm going to talk about this applies when you're writing instructions.

The first and least controversial example is to show the results of the user's action, like this:

This type of signpost reassures the reader that they've run the command correctly, or made the right gestures in the page, or whatever.

A second type of signpost is one that makes sure the reader is properly oriented at the beginning of a procedure. This comes up a lot in the complex tutorials I work with, which might have many separate procedures. What I tell my writers is that at the beginning of each procedure, they should make sure that the user is clear about where they are. Here's an example:

I sometimes get pushback from an author about this if the user isn't changing contexts between procedures. "They should just keep entering commands where they left off!" the author might say. I get this; it can feel like we're sort of stating the obvious. But remember my example at the beginning—sometimes it's helpful just to know that you're on the right road, even if you haven't gotten any indication that you're not.

The final example is one that I see rarely in technical documentation, which is too bad. This type of signposting warns the user of something out of the ordinary: an unexpected result, a long delay, a tricky procedure, or a non-intuitive process. Here's a sort-of example:

During the editing process, I asked the author "Is that period on the end of the cp command correct?" Yes, was the answer, "unfortunately." This might have been an opportunity to actually say to the reader "Hey, that period at the end? That's part of the syntax." But we didn't do that, perhaps because the author felt that the audience for this piece would not have that question. But you can probably think of other examples where a little authorial aside to point out something weird would have been helpful for the reader.

One of my favorite examples of this was an article about installing tools for Python. It included the following refreshingly honest instruction:
See all that stuff flying by? Forget about it.
(I wrote about this a few years ago.)

Talk about reassuring!

Update On Twitter, Leon (@secretgeek) points out another example of signposting that I didn't call out. In the first example earlier, the instruction starts with "Wait 3 to 4 minutes"—this notifies the user that a delay here is to be expected.

All of these examples—indeed, signposting in general—is a matter of putting yourself in the user's shoes. At what point(s) in the user's journey is it helpful to reassure them that they're still driving in the right direction? As an editor—hence, a user advocate—I'll suggest that it's more often than you think.