Instructions Need a Dénouement, Too

If your job is to create instructions for a product user, plot it out, and don’t skip the dénouement!

Unfamiliar with the term “dénouement?” In literature, the term refers to the ultimate outcome or explanation of a plotline. Literally, in Middle French (its origin), it means to “untie” or “unravel.”

What does all this have to do with writing instructions? If your instructions are taking a user on a journey through a set of tasks (think Campbell’s hero’s journey here), then I urge you to “unravel” the expected outcome of their journey for them – and help them to know they are on the right path along the way. Here’s how.

Answer the Unspoken Questions

In procedural communication, the dénouement, or unraveling, means answering the question, “How will I know I’ve been successful?”

When working with complex technical equipment or software, the user might not know or remember how a product is supposed to act or look after they complete a task. A statement as simple as “The box should close fully with an audible click” or “The LED should change from amber to green” can signal success to the user.

An illustration, even a screen capture, is helpful and sometimes all that is needed. In a complex procedure, an image within an individual step can quickly answer the question, “How is it supposed to look now?” And, obviously, video instructions abound.

But not everyone can live stream or download large video files or graphic-heavy documents. So if you are writing instructions, make sure your language is illustrative.

This example from Ring is the first significant step in the procedure to change a video doorbell’s battery:

A photo or illustration of the tool would definitely help here. And I would like to see the sub-steps enumerated. But you still can picture the flow of the procedure. Even better, the procedure tells you what to expect after each sub-step.

For additional pointers on how to write effective procedural instructions, download my free checklist.

Include the Why to Avoid the Worst

In particularly tricky or even dangerous procedures, strive to keep the user moving in the right direction. That involves telling them why they should – or, most importantly, why they should not – take specific steps.

In the Ring example above, the writer included two “whys”:

  • Why you should use the “star-shaped” tool, not a Phillips screwdriver.
  • Why you should avoid dropping the cover.

The first explains the narrowness of the tool choice. The second is a caution about handling a part. The first answers the question “Why should I?” The second answers the question “Why shouldn’t I?” Both are meant to keep the user on the right path toward success.

Sometimes the why is obvious to the user. The “why” in an instruction like “Disconnect the widget from the power source before touching the service panel” should be evident to anyone trained to service the equipment. That’s fine; no need to explain the obvious.

But sometimes, the user can make wrong assumptions about the why. So go ahead and point it out if your audience research shows that they would benefit.

For example, when pruning an orchid that has finished blooming:

        Remove the stem one inch above the second node if you want new flowers on the same stem.

That “if” clause is important. The goal is not to let the stem die; a nascent orchid owner like me must understand that. In technical procedures, if the “if” part is crucial, put it first in the sentence.

Sometimes a user needs to recognize a misstep immediately – and what to do if their result doesn’t match the expectation. In that case, the “why” is less important than the “what do I do now?”

For example, when I recently used a popular backup application to transfer my files from my old computer to my new one, I quickly learned why I had to sign into the app as an administrator instead of a user: I couldn’t find the old files If I didn’t. Understanding the why of that step was crucial to my success.

But I didn’t know that I had to clean up the device list through the online app afterward because my early attempts had left the app thinking I had three computers. I saw the result – three computers listed – and I didn’t care why that had happened. I just wanted to correct the mistake. Luckily, a very helpful customer service representative sent me clear instructions on what to do.

Some technical procedures include troubleshooting tips, hints, or links to separate troubleshooting instructions. These are all excellent ways to keep the user moving along the right path.

Follow These Tips

Including the concept of dénouement elevates the logic and usability of the procedure for the user. It’s just plain good writing. Here are some tips on how to put it into practice:

  • Tell the Result. To keep a user moving forward to task completion, include step results when the action:
    • Is followed by something new or unexpected, such as a popup screen.
    • Leads to a change in the environment, such as a new access point or a change in color or consistency.
    • Causes a delayed or extended system response. Please describe that response and/or provide the expected length of time!
    • Does NOT lead to a change that otherwise would have been expected.

  • Place Where Least Disruptive. You can place step results in one of two places (but not both!):
    • Place your step results in a sentence immediately following the step command (and within the same numbered paragraph). For example, “The Accounts Receivable screen opens.”
    • Or include the step result at the beginning of the subsequent step. For example, “On the Accounts Receivable screen, …”

  • Don’t Leave ‘Em Hanging. If the purpose of the procedure is the same as the result or the result is obvious from the title and introduction, you don’t necessarily have to summarize the procedure’s outcome. But consider telling the user what accomplishing the task now enables them to do. (Do they now have the keys to the kingdom?!) Also, if the procedure is part of a more extensive set, tell the user which procedure comes next.

In instruction writing, as in mystery writing, dénouement is essential. Like a good mystery writer (I am partial to Louise Penny myself), your plot’s detective – the user in this case – must be satisfied that the puzzle pieces fit how they should. Also, they must be confident that they have not missed or misidentified anything along the way or have been totally misdirected. So help them out!

Again, please download my free checklist for writing effective instructions.

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