I’m lucky to get to speak in London every now and again. As I’m usually staying in whatever part of town is closest to the particular event, I am often in an unfamiliar area. On my last trip I heard my hotel was near Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and asked the front-desk clerk for directions.

She whipped out a paper map. She whipped out a pen. She started to draw Xs and circles and lines. She said: “You can go here, take the first left, turn right.”

Then she said: “Or you could go this way. It’s a little longer but go left, turn right, and watch for signs.” She drew on the map some more. She pointed out the window. She verified with a coworker.

I went outside, map in hand, and three minutes later when I arrived at the Globe—after a roundabout detour around an apartment complex she hadn’t mentioned—I wondered: “Why didn’t she just say, “Walk to the river and turn left. You can’t miss it”? Really? She didn’t mention the Thames?

Lesson learned: Look it up myself.

Go to Wichita Falls or on foot and turn left

The thing is, we aren’t most of us very good at giving directions. Rather like many of us aren’t good at telling jokes, we often put in too much irrelevant detail and leave out something important. My husband (bless his heart, as we say in the South) uses landmarks that no longer exist, like a local mall that was demolished 12 years ago. My dad (bless his heart, too) helped build a lot of local roads. He remembered crossroad names and road numbers and used them the way the rest of us use street names (“Take 1407 up to Pumpkin Center and then cross over to 1326.”). He was right, but it was in a language I didn’t speak.

Most of us, especially on the spur of the moment, get tangled up in our own view of the thing and forget steps and need to backtrack in our explanations. In a train-the-trainer course I run—the only classroom program I still teach—everyone has an assignment to break the participants into groups into threes or fours or fives. They can’t believe this is an assignment, but even with a week’s notice and a sheet with instructions few can do it on the first try. They get tangled up in the numbers, and can’t remember if they were asking for four groups of five or five groups of four, and they can’t seem to stop talking. It’s a great setup for discussing ways to give clear instructions.

What does this have to do with eLearning?

Sometimes in designing eLearning another thing happens: we get so caught up in the “look and feel” and aesthetics that we miss the obvious. And sometimes we make it so hard for learners to learn, it’s no wonder they circumvent us.

When have you seen:

  • Explanations of course navigation more complicated than the actual course content?
  • Programs that included more about the history of the lobster-eating policy than actual instructions for eating the lobster?
  • Directions that did not make clear what the learner was supposed to do?
  • Instructions that obviously made sense to the writer but often not to the end user (cough—a certain Swedish furniture store—cough).
  • Online “help” guides that are anything but helpful.

And really, not to blame the learner, but I’m notorious myself for skipping and skimming and having to search back to a place in the instructions that is often ridiculously hard to find. Writing better instructions—and making them easier to find—is going to be even more important as we are increasingly charged with developing performance-support tools and job aids, in a world where learners as often as not have learned to say, “I’ll look it up myself.”

The basic lessons here for those writing instructions should be clear. Now there are new tools emerging that may make this easier going. For example, lately I’ve been enamored of a new tool called Snapguide. It provides support and space for user-generated quick photo or video tutorials on everything from cooking to bike repair to technology use. Unlike YouTube, which is great but provides no structure for users (see Nuts and Bolts: Be a Learner), Snapguide’s designer tool essentially teaches the teacher how to teach. Prompts at the first screen ask what materials will be needed for the task. There is a limit to how much content you can fit on a screen (now there’s something eLearning designers could learn from). The tool forces you to break up your instructions into distinct steps. It pushes hard for you to provide a visual.

Here’s an example: Using Music to Support Learning. There may still be some problems with forgetting to mention the river, but it helps to lessen some of the problems with giving directions. It’s a start, anyway. I look forward to what the future holds in the way of providing performance support for those who design performance support.

So, the nuts and bolts of this? Remember: The instructions can be as important as the instruction.

Want more?

Consider learning more about technical writing and developing training for technical topics, even if you don’t design for technical topics. As always, reference Clark & Mayer’s eLearning and the Science of Instruction. And try taking a look at what the Society for Technical Communication has to offer.