The Instruction Writer’s Problem

(Silverdale, Washington; August 8, 2020) – We trust instructions to carry us through a project in a logical, step-by-step fashion, eschewing any use of magic. I don’t know about you, but my parents sent me to conventional schools for muggles, not academies for young wizards.

Finding this trust misplaced is another universal human experience. Quite often the instructions skip steps, or else involve magical powers that lead from Step 1 (“start by placing Tab A into Slot B”) straight to Step 201 (“enjoy your new, hydraulically powered shower”). Not long ago we then would have been forced to phone a friend who was mechanically inclined, or else take a shot at deducing the proper steps ourselves. Today we look up supplemental how-to videos on the internet.

I refer to this phenomena as the “Instruction Writer’s Problem.” Whomever is sitting down to draft the instructions is an expert in the project (well, we hope they are), so they are certainly the correct choice for the knowledge involved. However, are they the correct choice to write the instructions?

If they are not, the Instruction Writer’s Problem can confound communication continuity with the consternated consumer.

The human brain is an amazingly flexible, capable, and space-saving computer system. As one becomes familiar with a task, the brain begins to “hook up” small steps into larger steps, thereby creating fewer “units” to index. “Muscle memory” refers not only to your physical muscles being trained to certain actions for speed; “muscle memory” also refers to how quickly your brain can recall and engage needed data from your memory. The more often you rely on that memory, the quicker your brain can pull it up when needed. Basically, your brain creates “short cut” icons on your mental desktop for tasks you do all the time and know intimately.

These “combined units” of information in your head seem to be solid, unique constructions to you—a single step in a multi-step task. Unfortunately, to one who is not an expert, these combined units are incomprehensibly magical. The expert who neglects to break these “combined units” back into their component molecules creates confusion by skipping steps and apparently invoking powerful magic.

I confronted this problem directly during my seven years as a Navy instructor. I had to develop lesson plans for subjects ranging from Adobe “PhotoShop” to leadership ethics. I’ll use Adobe “PhotoShop” as an example. I’m used to working in “PhotoShop,” and found I was in the habit of referring to a tool by its shortcut without first teaching the students where the tool was actually located, and then how to short-cut to it. I had to step back and remember what it was like when I was the novice and think through the actual step-by-step work flow. Despite the temptation, I could not rely on the indexed, organized, and short-cut method my amazing brain developed due to my level of experience.

I specialized in training new instructors, and I always made a point to address this issue. This priority stood me in very good stead when I later became lead instructor, lead curriculum developer, and schoolhouse manager for an intermediate public affairs school I helped found for the Navy. Our team was inventing everything from scratch as we created the educational program, so I redoubled my efforts training them to recognize and overcome the Instruction Writer’s Problem.

This problem manifests not only in written instructions, but can also be found in unlikely places, and can lead to dangerous results.

I recently went hiking in what is probably the most back-country area I’ve explored in a long time: the Tubal Cain Mine Trail in the Buckhorn Wilderness, which is part of the Olympic National Forest. I wanted to see an historic aircraft crash site along it. The website for Washington State trails said it would be an “easy” 3.2 mile hike from the trail head to the turn-off where I was going to make a 400-foot climb over half a mile to the wreckage of an SB-17 that crashed on Mt. Tyler in 1952. So far, so good; I was ready for the climb and knew that part would be a challenge. I was prepared for it.

News flash! The 3.2 miles to the turn-off were not “easy” by any stretch. The Tubal Cain Mine Trail is easy to follow; it’s well cut and obvious. However, it is not a level grade as the website writer implied. It is a steady uphill climb over a trail that had as many areas of uncertain footing as any. The entire hike was far more advanced than I had anticipated based on the guidance of those who wrote for the website. I was on my return journey when, with 1.5 miles to go, I ran out of water. I have not run out of water during a hike in 17 years (last time was 2003 on Guam).

That is a dangerous situation to be in, especially for a man who was hit with heat stroke years ago and has difficultly regulating body heat. I got back to my car and the water bottle I always keep there “just in case.” Well, the other week, “just in case” was the case, and this a case in point!

I rest my case.

When I got home I reviewed the website on the chance I had missed something. I hadn’t. The trail writer had fallen prey to the Instruction Writer’s Problem. He is likely “professional-level” hiker who trains with an athlete’s focus to tackle days-long adventures over rugged terrain. That 3.2 mile stretch probably was easy for him. Unfortunately, “easy” can mean different things depending on your experience. For a person of my experience level (experienced day hiker), that steady uphill grade was a factor I needed to know about in order to safely plan for the adventure.

If you’re the one writing the instructions or guidance, step back and consider your audience. If you are only addressing a collection of peers who share your level of experience, then no worries. You can skip most of the minor steps and focus on the big ones.

However, when drafting something that will likely be used by those with far less experience, take a moment and reflect. Think things through from the perspective of the beginner gardener, hiker, phlebotomist, etc. They will need true step-by-step guidance just as you did when you were a beginner (this is especially important for phelbotomists). Once drafted, have a trusted source review your instructions to ensure you don’t accidentally gloss over any steps.

The Instruction Writer’s Problem is as old as humanity itself, and it will never be eradicated. However, I do sincerely hope the guidance I have provided here might be of some small service improving the lives of all those who, like myself, have suffered the indignity of having to learn magic. May all the instructions you write be so simple, easy, and logical that anyone reading them can successfully conduct hiking trips…or phlebotomy!

…Just my thoughts.

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