There are few worse ideas in technical communication than the idea that procedures have prerequisites. There are no prerequisites. There are only steps.
To illustrate: Last weekend I paid a visit to some family members who were camping at a nearby campground. They were struggling to inflate the new air mattress they had bought. The mattress had an integrated foot pump, but no matter how they pumped, the mattress refused to fill with air.
Several of us took our turns trying. Each of us read the instructions and did what they said to do, all to no effect. The decision was eventually made to return the mattress to the store, and discussion turned to whether to go home or sleep on the ground.
I, however, decided to apply my long experience of analysing bad user documentation to trying to figure out if the fault lay in the instructions rather than the mattress. Sure enough, it did. Earlier in the document, right under the safety bumpf, was a small section call “Preparation”. It was printed in reverse — white on black. It said that before inflating you had to close a valve that was located on the far end of the mattress — as far as it could possibly be from the built-in foot pump.
Once we closed the valve, we were able to inflate the mattress.
Bad product design. Bad information design.
Yes, this is a stupid piece of product design. Why not put the valve in the same place as the foot pump so that it would be obvious that it needed to be closed?
But it is an equally bad piece of information design. I wonder if the person who wrote the instructions imagined that by putting the “Preparation” section in reverse type they were making it more prominent and ensuring it would be read. If so, they were wrong. If anything, it made it look like a particularly dire part of the safety warnings that no one reads. It helped ensure that it was almost certain to be ignored.
But the problem is not whether this attempt to make the preparation section more noticeable succeeded or failed. The problem is that there should never have been a preparation section in the first place. Step one of the inflation instructions should have been:
1. Close the valve at the other end of the mattress.
That is all that was required to make these instructions work. That is all that would have been required to save several people wasting a bunch of time and effort trying to inflate a mattress when they could otherwise have been relaxing round the campfire.
There are no prerequisites. The thing you have to do first is the first thing you have to do. It is step one.
People skip straight to Step 1.
People do not read instruction sheets through from the beginning. They skip over the lawyer’s bumph and scan for a heading that indicates the procedure they want to perform. They then skip over any introductory material under that heading and go straight to the paragraph that begins with
That’s what I do. That’s what you do. That’s what everybody does.
If there is a section in there that says “Prerequisites” or “Preparation” WE DID NOT READ IT. We skipped right past it. We did not see it. We did not do it.
There are no prerequisites. The first thing we read is Step 1.
Procedures belong to the task, not the product
Some might argue that in some cases the procedure for machine A begins at a certain point, but that the user needs to make sure that some stuff has been done on machine B first. In this case, the machine A stuff is the procedure for machine A and the machine B stuff is the prerequisite.
But this is to mistake the procedure for a feature of the machine. The procedure is a feature of the user’s task. If the user’s task involves first doing something to machine B and then doing something to machine A, then that task has one procedure and it starts with the first thing they have to do on machine B.
If it might have been done already, tell them to check
Some might argue that the prerequisites may already have been done, or may have been done by someone else. That may be true, but if they are presented separately from the procedure, chances are they won’t be done by anybody and the procedure will fail. If the prerequisites may already have been done, here is how you write step 1:
1. Check to see if the valve at the other end of the mattress is closed. If it is open, close it.
To avoid repetition, link to another procedure
Some might object that the procedure for performing the prerequisites is elsewhere and they don’t want to repeat it. Okay, then write step one like this:
1. Check to see if the valve at the other end of the mattress is closed. If it is open, close it by following the instructions in section A.
Use the right reuse techniques
Some might argue that they need to keep the procedure separate from the prerequisites in order to make the procedure itself reusable. First, don’t use reuse techniques that make your content worse. It is better to duplicate than to mutilate. Second, if you choose the right reuse techniques, this should not be an issue. With the right approach, it should be possible to reuse a set of steps, insert them into a larger procedure, and have the steps be renumbered automatically.
Get prerequisites out of your docs
There are straightforward ways to handle all of the conditions that might lead you to including a prerequisites section in your instructions. You should never write prerequisite or preparation instructions that are separate from the main procedure.
The reason is very simple: people will start at Step 1.
Really, what else would we think they would do?
- Search your docs for words like “preparation”, “prerequisites”, and “before you begin”.
- Move the contents of those sections into the procedures they belong to.
There are no prerequisites. Every procedure starts with Step 1.