Number of steps per procedure?

Subject: Number of steps per procedure?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "Techwr-L (E-mail)" <TECHWR-L -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>, "'Tara English-Sweeney'" <tesweeney -at- novadigm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 18 Oct 2000 16:28:39 -0400

Tara English-Sweeney comes <<...from the school of thought that says you
should limit the number of steps in a procedure. The old rule of 7 +/- 2 is
usually comfortable to me.>>

Miller's Magic 7 is a pernicious and largely meaningless rule of thumb in
most techwhirler contexts. For details, see my "ten myths" article (details
posted to techwr-l yesterday; you can find it at A
procedure takes as many steps as it takes, no more, no less: building a
battleship isn't going to get done in 9 steps--and probably not even in 900
steps, even if you're working under a government "least cost" bidding
procedure. More relevant to our usual fodder, setting up a server is also
going to take far more than 9 steps. That being said, you're right that long
procedures can be awfully intimidating, and its worthwhile chunking them
into smaller units-- but forget about 7 +/- 2.

Since the goal is to make the procedure unintimidating, start by analyzing
what's going on so that you identify logical "chunks" (e.g., for the server
installation, these might be "taking it out of the box", "plugging
everything in", "installing the operating system", "tweaking the default
values", and so on). Break the overall procedure at these points,
particularly if each chunk can be described as "okay, you've finished this
part of the procedure; take a break and start again tomorrow morning" or has
similarly obvious stopping points. If the number of steps is still
intimidating, you can subdivide the main chunks into smaller chunks that
also form logical units (e.g., for "installing the operating system", these
might be "installing Netware", "installing the mail server", "installing the
HTML server", etc.).

Renumber the steps starting at 1 when you start each new chunk; you still
have the same total number of steps, but each chunk looks less intimidating
because it ends with a smaller final number on the last step. (I have
absolutely no rigorous evidence that this truly helps, other than my own
reactions to long strings of numbers and past discussions on techwr-l:
smaller numbers always make the procedure seem less intimidating to me.

<<The procedure is done in a wizard-like environment... The similarity is
that you navigate through the windows from start to end, complete many
fields along the way. Due to poor design (which is supposed to evolve), you
really can't jump out in the middle of the procedure, nor can you
successfully pick up from where you left off.>>

The fact that you've got to sit through the entire 19 steps must be clearly
documented so readers know this before they begin. For example: "Once you
start the process of dismantling the BadguysBegone(TM) tactical nuclear
weapon, you cannot stop without completing the entire process. This
typically requires 2 hours, but may take longer. Don't start unless you have
enough time to complete the process." (You'd also want to provide a
checklist of any resources in addition to time that the user requires before
starting, such as lead underwear and a paid-in-full insurance policy. <g>)

<<I've condensed the number of steps as much as possible.>>

Your proposal looks good for a start. All you need to do is create the
"subheadings" for each major chunk or subchunk. Doing so might let you
"unroll" the steps you've condensed so that the bullets under each number
become distinct steps. Another possibility that works particularly well for
describing tons of fields is to replace the step with a table: column 1 is
labeled "In the field labeled", column 2 is labeled "Enter the following
information", and the entries under each column appear in the same order in
which they appear on screen. In some cases, you might even be able to set
the table up so it mimicks the physical layout of the screen; that lets the
user compare the table with the screen at a glance, thereby minimizing the
chance of errors before proceeding to the next screen.

<<What do you think about a procedure that has 19 steps?>>

A candidate for a user-interface overhaul, but not necessarily a bad design.
As I noted, if it takes 19 steps, that's what you have to document. No way
around it.

<<Do you limit the number of steps in a procedure?>>

No, but I make sure each is really necessary and try to suggest an interface
improvement if I can dream one up.

<<If so, how do you handle it in a situation that seems unavoidable?>>

Close my eyes and think of England? <g>

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca

"Technical writing... requires understanding the audience, understanding
what activities the user wants to accomplish, and translating the often
idiosyncratic and unplanned design into something that appears to make
sense."--Donald Norman, The Invisible Computer

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