Re: numbering a single step + academic research

Subject: Re: numbering a single step + academic research
From: Johndan Johnson-Eilola <johndan -at- purdue -dot- edu>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1999 07:15:17 -0500

Although there's certainly a broad, systematic logic says you *don't* number single steps because "1" implies a "2", there's another logic that says if you have fifty or a hundred sets of steps in a procedures manual and all except three of those sets are numbered sequences of more than one step, users are going to be skimming for specific steps based on them having numbers in front of them. And that skimming pattern is going to be supported by their experience with technical communication in general--nearly all sets of steps have more than one step in them, so people get used to looking for "1" to start a procedure--and at that point in their skimming, they may not know that there's only one step, so they have no reason to search for "*" (bullet) instead of "1".

This is where styles and systems of logic break down. Has anyone actually done some user testing on this to see if users tend to skim for "1" to find the start of a procedure (and tend to miss the few procedures that deny that logic and start with a bullet)? We have to make sure that we don't find single systems of logic and cling to them

This is also related to the point of why academics aren't doing the types of research people here have called for--it's nearly impossible to generate results that are definitive, because users' contexts and purposes (as well as program specifics) change constantly. I've reviewed submissions to _Technical Communication_ reporting empirical research on things like screenshot placement, and invariably the authors want to make claims that aren't warranted by the data (or that might easily be explained by numerous other factors).

However, if you want research that breaks down complicated contexts and users into very elementary sections, you can find a lot of that in cog psych journals, usability research, interface design, etc. (probably because people in those fields moved to them from scientific worldviews that prioritized the breakdown and explanation of reality into small rational chunks through empirically repeatable testing). But most practicitioners find that those results are so context-specific and isolated that they are, at best, rules of thumb that an expert technical communicator will need to constantly interrogate and adjust based on experience. (I'm all in favor of people learning to use this data in forming rules of thumb, but--as with grammar rules--people tend to stick to them as if they were immutable truths and deny all other experience.)

- Johndan


Subject: numbering a single step
From: Kyle Kimberlin <Kyle -at- di -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 27 Sep 1999 10:50:16 -0700
X-Message-Number: 29

I agree with those who suggest that it is not necessary to number a single step
procedure. If there is only one step to be taken, you are not describing a
process, you are just describing an action. You simply write a sentence, or
paragraph, telling the reader what to do.

Only a series of steps should be numbered.

For example:

In order to restart the machine, perform the following:

1. Press the reset button.
2. Toggle the circuit breaker to the ON position.


In order to restart the machine, press the RESTART button.
Kyle Kimberlin
Technical Writer
Digital Instruments, Veeco Metrology Group
Santa Barbara, CA. USA
kyle -at- di -dot- com

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