Re: Use of Optional in instructions

Subject: Re: Use of Optional in instructions
From: Fox Cole <foxcole -at- gmail -dot- com>
To: techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com
Date: Sat, 12 Sep 2009 08:26:48 -0500

Bruce Megan (ST-CO/ENG2.2)" <Megan -dot- Bruce -at- us -dot- bosch -dot- com>

> An interesting debate has started at my workplace... is the following
> use of "optional" acceptable? If not, any suggestions on other ways to
> 1. Select the Tx Inhibit check box, to block the operator from
> transmitting audio (optional).
> A SME has put forth the argument that a user may not catch the
> (optional) due to not reading the entire instruction.

I agree with everyone who has already agreed with the SME. With apologies to
Bear, I firmly disagree that it's a ghost issue not worth addressing (and
why would you wait to observe the behavior before correcting the problem?
isn't it a bit too late then?). I have seen people act on instructions
written this way, and instances have been documented where serious problems
occurred because of instructions written this way, which is why the
decision-point-first standard exists.

Even if the instruction isn't a critical step, keep the form consistent. The
reader's cognitive load is eased by not feeling they must read the entire
instruction before deciding whether or not to follow it. If they can always
make the decision up front, help them do that and let them move on.

However, there's another problem with that original sentence: it's not clear
as to what, exactly, is optional.

Placing [Optional] at the beginning of the instruction clearly marks the
entire instruction, whereas leaving it at the end could lead the reader to
misinterpret (and because it could be misinterpreted, it will be) as only
the audio being optional... not even the act of transmitting audio, just
audio, because that's visually where the (optional) tag pairs up.

If the reader is alert enough to put any thought into their actions, they
now have to parse out the instruction from end to beginning to decide what
portion of it is optional, before it's possible to make any decision about
whether to follow the instruction.

So, with the simple misplacement of a tag, you've tasked the reader with
reading the whole instruction (which you can only hope they do) and
encountering at the end a word that requires them to reread in order to make
a decision about where and how to make a decision to act. That's a big load
for one instruction, isn't it?


If the world were a logical place, men would ride side saddle. -- Rita Mae

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