When instructions don’t work

Web writers are constantly telling people what to do. It’s their job to write instructions to help users to find what they want on websites. So why don’t web writers give more thought to the words they use?

A colleague recently struggled with the instructions on a pot of paint. Yes, it seems we do need to be told how to apply paint, but in this case the instructions merely caused confusion.

One instruction read:
“Apply 1 coat of the appropriate coloured undercoat to all primed wood (recommend using with part 1,1 coat of primer to new or bare wood).”

Confused? It turns out that “part 1” is another pot of paint. This pot was labelled “Part 2 of a 3 part weather-resistant and flexible paint system.”

The use of the word “part”, to describe the stages of applying paint is confusing because applying paint often involves mixing, which in turn means talking about parts, as in “mix two parts x to one part y”.

I labour the point because the choice of words on a website is so crucial to its success. The slightest hesitation on the part of the user may mean the end of the visit and the loss of business.

Does “Register” mean the same as “Sign up”?

“Register” sounds more of a commitment.

I’ve even seen “Sign up” and “Subscribe” next to each other, which is distinctly unhelpful:

Do they mean the same or don’t they?

Here’s another muddle:
Delivery or shipping - confusing instructions
“Delivery” and “shipping” conjure up very different images in our minds, yet here they are used interchangeably. The muddle, I think, is in the mind of the writer: “shipping” is usual in American English, whereas “delivery” is more familiar to British users.

It’s not hard to be consistent. It may seem dull for the writer, but it is so helpful to the user when exactly the same words are used in the text and the link:
Apple's instructions are consistent

Users don’t want to waste time working out what instructions mean. Just remember the title of one of the best books about website design: “Don’t make me think” by Steve Krug.

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