The One Thing Your Instructions Are Missing

There's one piece of information your instructions might be missing that will really help your users.

Good instructions are composed of several parts:

  • Context and conceptual information.
  • Steps (properly broken down with one action per step).
  • Description of a state change. (The XXX screen appears).
  • What to do to produce a state change. “Do X until X happens.”

But what is often missing is a time component: roughly how long it will take until X reaches the desired state. I often see this missing in recipes, or procedures describing physical processes.

Here are some examples that are missing the time component:

  • Boil potatoes until a knife easily pierces them.
  • Mix the two parts of the epoxy resin until no streaks or striations remain.
  • Whip the egg white/sugar mixture until it becomes glossy.

If I’ve never done these instructions before, I have no idea how long these things take. If I’m making potatoes and it takes 5 minutes, I probably shouldn’t walk too far from the stove, but if it will take 20 minutes, I could easily go do something else.

It’s easy to edit these instructions to be more helpful:

  • Boil potatoes until a knife easily pierces them, about 10 minutes.
  • Mix the two parts of the epoxy resin until no streaks or striations remain, about 3-4 minutes.
  • Whip the egg white/sugar mixture until it becomes glossy. This could take up to 15 minutes, so I hope you have a stand mixer, or very strong arms.

There are some procedures can’t be more precisely estimated, because they have an “it depends” factor. Let’s say you’re talking about rendering edited video. The time it takes to render video will differ depending on a computer’s processor, RAM, hard drive space, etc. But if that’s the case, you should include that “it depends” information, and at least a ballpark of expected time:

“The time it takes to render your video is dependent on a lot of factors (your computer’s processor, RAM, etc.) but you can ballpark about 5 minutes rendering time per minute of video. So if your video is 30 minutes, it will take roughly 150 minutes to render, or 2.2 hours.”