Re: How much is too much?

Subject: Re: How much is too much?
From: SteveFJong -at- aol -dot- com
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com
Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2000 12:16:09 EST

Geoff Hart <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA> points out that Miller's "magic number"
7+/-2 was not based on procedure lengths. However, from that fact it does not
follow that the principle does NOT apply to procedure lengths. It very well
may. In fact, I tend to recommend 7+/-2 steps in procedures, but for some
different reasons.

As the saying goes, when you're up to your butt in alligators, it's hard to
remember you went in to drain the swamp. The psychological principle of
closure says that we want to complete things, and can feel anxious when that
completion is delayed or denied. Think of the tension of songs that end "one
note early," or Roger Rabbit's inability to resist the "shave and-a-haircut"
knock. ("TWO BITS!" he screamed, completing the phrase but revealing himself
to Judge Doom...)

But enough silly examples. I worked on a network management application, one
module of which had a command-line interface. You could define alarms on
network entities by entering a definition. The definition could easily run
200-250 characters, entered in line mode--that is, once you entered a line
you couldn't edit it. In training, even expert users, given a list of rules
to type exactly as shown, were completely unable to type that long a line
without errors; and then they had to enter the whole thing again. The problem
wasn't just the primitive interface or the questionable typing skills of the
user; it was also performance anxiety as the commands got longer and longer
and longer...

As Lisa Higgins <LHiggins -at- carrieraccess -dot- com> points out, the goal of a
procedure is not to memorize it. Yet you need to remember how far along you
are. If you're in step 23 of 40, you can easily lose your place, and I'd
claim it's because of short-term-memory overload.

There are more practical considerations. Limiting procedures to seven steps
helps keep to the correct level of detail. If you have a 40-step procedure,
are the steps really too small for the target audience? Maybe you're trying
to direct experienced system administrators to move the mouse to the File
menu, to click once, to pull the mouse down to the Open... item, to click
again, to... (AARGH!)

Finally, the seven-step guideline is a sanity check on the product itself. If
it really takes 40 steps to accomplish something, one can argue the product
is inherently too complex. Without checkpoints, the chances of an error
obviously increase with procedure length. (My gut tells me this is a
persuasive argument!)

-- Steve

Steven Jong, Documentation Team Manager ("Typo? What tpyo?")
Lightbridge, Inc., 67 S. Bedford St., Burlington, MA 01803 USA
mailto:Jong -at- lightbridge -dot- com 781.359.4902[V], 781.359.4500[F]
Home Sweet Homepage: http://members.aol.com/SteveFJong





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