Let’s talk about procedure writing and why having user-focused, accurate, clear, and concise procedures is so important for tasks related to your business.
First, what are procedures?
Procedures are user-enabling documents; they provide information to a user or users that facilitate the performance of a task or set of tasks consistently, accurately, and most importantly, safely.
Procedures are step-by-step instructions that provide directions about how to carry out tasks and activities.
We’ve all been to Ikea, right? Well, those helpful little guidebooks that you get with every purchase, the ones filled with black and white drawings showing you how to put your furniture together? Those are procedures. You might not think of them this way because they contain almost no words, but they still show you how to do something–can you imagine trying to put together a chest of drawers without some guidance?
Why does procedure writing need to be user-focused?
Because procedures aid the user in completing his or her task in a consistent, efficient, and accurate manner, they need to factor in who the user is. Are they experts in their field? Is English their first language? Do they work in hazardous situations where time and safety are critical factors? All these questions and more need to be asked when writing procedures so that the outcome or deliverable is targeted to those who will be using the document(s); we call this an audience analysis.
Let’s go back to the Ikea procedures now. As a multi-national company that sells affordable furniture, their audience is pretty much anyone in the world, so they need to ensure that their instructions are accessible to all users of all backgrounds, reading levels, and skill sets. Ikea factored all of this in when creating their procedures and presto, a completely graphic procedure document was developed that is usable by any audience. If you have a more specific audience, you can incorporate procedure design strategies that best serve that audience, or the specific user.
How important is accuracy in procedure writing?
This video about making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, (https://www.tiktok.com/@noelldavid04/video/7190048190341631237) while humorous, does a great job of illustrating how important it is to be clear and precise when documenting procedural steps. Ambiguity leaves room for interpretation (or misinterpretation, if you will), which paves the way for issues to arise and ultimately opens up the potential for incidents or injuries.
Well-built documentation, including procedures, is the foundation of company operations. Customers and clients want high-quality, consistent products and services for a reasonable cost. Accurate procedures ensure that all company personnel can complete the steps required to build your product or provide your service efficiently and consistently and to the quality standards you expect. Thus, easily understood procedures result in higher profits margins and satisfied customers.
Say you’re a mum, and every day you make your kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. Another mum has asked you to write down how to make these since she hasn’t ever done it before and wants to have her kids try it. So, you write out instructions (similar to those in the video) and it might look like this:
- Get out your bread, peanut butter, and jelly.
- Spread jelly on one piece of bread and peanut butter on the other.
- Put bread together and cut off the crusts.
But like the video demonstrated, this may be enough information for you, but not for a new user. After all, you do it every single day–this procedure makes sense to you and your knowledge of how to do it fills in the gaps in the content without even noticing them.
That’s the same with many operators, technical specialists, subject matter experts, or people who perform the task on a regular basis. They are so used to performing the steps that they go into autopilot, and don’t notice small details such as mentioning that a knife (a necessary tool) is used to spread the peanut butter.
Someone who is unfamiliar with the procedure needs this information, along with the information about what side of the bread to spread the condiments on, how much to spread, etc.
That’s where a technical or procedure writing company comes in.
Great technical writing is a skill. The ability to transform highly technical content into clear, specific instruction that leaves no room for ambiguity and provides the user with the answers to questions they may ask, quickly and efficiently is a specific skill.
How about another example? This is one that we provide to our clients during our technical writing workshops.
Follow the steps below.
With the square pointing up, you shall begin. Fold the paper in half (corners together). Don’t leave it opened. At this point in time, the folded down crease line will go through the middle. Fold halfway again to create a triangle. Mark a little way from the edges on the longest topmost facing corner. Fold down from where it was marked to right side outer facing edge. This creates a small sideways right-hand pointing 4-inch triangle in the corner. The small 4-inch triangle will line up with the right edge of the larger triangle (hint: corners do not stick out). Repeat this step. The paper shall now be a diamond. Paper has an uppermost top facing layer and a folded bottom back layer. Now, fold only the uppermost top facing layer of paper. The folded bottom back layer will remain as it is. Fold downward pointing bottom tip up slightly. Note that the paper is now a dog. The uppermost edges are ears, downward pointing bottom fold is a nose, and folded bottom back layer is tongue.
A skilled practitioner of origami could possibly take the information in Exhibit A and end up with the result in Exhibit B, but they would be frustrated in trying to read the instructions, and it would take much longer to understand what the expected end result should be. Once we break the steps up and add images (Exhibit B), the procedure and the end result are much easier to see and accomplish.
Why don’t you try to use the instructions above and see how it goes? We’d love to see your end result, so make sure to take a picture and share it to our Facebook page!
Procedures are written to inform a user how to do something, so the design and structure of a well-written procedure must consider the user and what you want them to accomplish. At Shea Writing & Training Solutions, we use our skills and experience to write clear, concise, useful procedures for all types of tasks. As a procedure writing company, we create clarity out of chaos, one sentence at a time!
Let’s talk today about how we can help you write user-friendly procedures to keep your employees consistently productive and safe!