Procedures - Must we use numbered steps?

Subject: Procedures - Must we use numbered steps?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Steven Brown <stevenabrown -at- yahoo -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 18 Apr 2006 10:09:25 -0400

Steven Brown wondered: <<We spend a great deal of time formatting numbered procedures and the numbered substeps that are often embedded within them. (How many times have we struggled with Word's autonumbering?)>>

fwiw, you should never use autonumbering. It's been broken since ca. 1995, and Microsoft shows no sign of planning to fix it. The standard solution is to use autotext (i.e., the autocorrect function) with sequence fields. Have a look at Dave Knopf's explanation:

<<It's become an accepted practice that when you write a procedure, you use numbers to show the sequence of steps.>>

Yup. It's not because, as some might think, the numbers are necessary to explain the sequence; we all pretty much know that we start at the top and move downwards one line at a time. Rather, it's because the numbers provide a hook that lets us remember were we were when we took our eyes off the page (or Help window) to look at the keyboard or the software interface or hardware. Numbers make this easy; in contrast, when 75% of the instructions begin with the words "Open the X menu", all those lines look the same, and it becomes much easier to skip a step or repeat several steps. Numbers reduce that risk

<<I wonder, is it really necessary to use numbered steps at all?>>

Not for simple procedures, or (arguably) for procedures in which each line begins with a different series of words. Tables that put the summary instruction in the left column and the details in the right column can use lots of white space to separate the items in the left column, and that also helps. But I'd propose that numbering steps has become the standard because the approach is so familiar to readers and so efficient that there aren't any really good alternatives. Find one that's as efficient, and let us know!

<<Gordon Meyer's Usable Help blog ( recently discussed what techncial writers might learn from recipe writers. While he doesn't raise the issue of numbered steps, it struck me that recipes rarely use numbered steps at all, yet somehow cookbook readers are able to follow a fairly complex sequence of tasks.>>

Some cookbooks do indeed use numbered steps. Personally, I find them much easier to use. YMMV, of course. The ones that don't tend to fall into one of two main camps: The first camp simply creates one long paragraph containing a series of steps. I suspect this is done from tradition, not because anyone prefers it.

The second camp is considerably more sophisticated, and does useful things like listing one or more ingredients followed by brief instructions on what to do with them. Once you've done that, the ingredients are no longer sitting there on the work table (they're in the pot or pan or oven or whatever), so you physically cannot repeat the step: the ingredients are gone. So if you lose your place, you simply look for the last ingredients you used, and pick up where you left off.

<<So I ask, have you ever considered writing procedures without numbers?>>

Where I've used this most successfully was in a series of quickstart guides that I produced. Because the format was a table with text in the left column and graphics in the right, it was easy to read sequentially through the steps, and the significantly different graphics served the same role as numbers: they provided a clear visual point of return in the text. This works because we humans are intensely visual animals, and images attract our attention more strongly than words. We don't take advantage of this strength often enough imho.

A similar approach would work well with comic-strip-styled instructions: so long as the sequence (left to right for the typical Dilbert-style strip) is clear, and the graphics are distinct, no numbers should be required. Of course, any example of what Scott McLoud calls "serial animation" would work this way; think of how an onscreen installation wizard works and you'll get the idea. Because only one step appears on the screen at a time, and you move to the next step by clicking the "Next" button, you never forget where you are.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Procedures - Must we use numbered steps?: From: Steven Brown

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