Why people think they are above having to read instructions

[I recently received the following e-mail… –DGJ]

Dear Sir:

I am presently working on a science fair project for my school. I found your article, Instructions: How to Write for Busy, Grouchy People. I was hoping you could expand on that a little more for me.

I am in the 7th grade. My project this year is attempting to prove that 99% of people fail to read the following directions after being told and read to do so. I was wondering if you could help me document as to why people think they are above having to read instructions? Truly most of the people I have tested have come straight out and said instructions are for idiots, or fools with too much time. Needless to say these fools did not pass the simple task laid out before them.

One of my questions because of the failure rate of this test is: are people so transfixed or gullible to believe they can do anything without reading the how to’s first?

I would like to thank you up front for any advice or help you can offer towards my Science fair project. I look forward to hearing your answers to questions and any other responses that may help my research.


7th grade

Why people think they are above having to read instructionsJerz’s Literacy Weblog)

I was so impressed with the professionalism of Heather’s request that (after asking her permission, and after she checked with her parents) I’m posting her question along with my response.

Most of us probably remember more vividly the time we wasted reading instructions that don’t help, than the time that we save by reading instructions that really do help. Think about it — if you are late for an appointment and you are stuck in traffic, you will probably dwell on the miserable experience you are having (because there is nothing else to do). When things are going well, you are free to daydream — and time flies when you’re having fun. While there are some optimists who prefer to accentuate the positive, people who turn to instruction manuals are already having a problem of some sort, so they tend to be grouchy and stressed (and they probably associate those feelings of stress with the action of consulting instructions, making them even more reluctant to consult instructions in the future).

Even though I have taught hundreds of students in technical writing (the kind of professional writing that emphasizes instructions, manuals, and other documents that help people get work done), and I should probably know better, I myself usually try to avoid reading instructions, for all the usual reasons:

  1. stopping to get help seems like it will take up more time than it will save
  2. I’m too proud and stubborn to admit I don’t know what I’m doing
  3. I’ve already put so much time into this that I don’t want to give up until I try just one more thing… and one more… and one more.

Researchers call this the “Paradox of the Active User.” Even when timed experiments show that people usually save time when they read the instructions first, we tend to get anxious unless we are doing something. Reading instructions feels like doing nothing — especially when the clock is ticking.

My wife, who is not fond of computers, can’t for the life of her remember the three-step procedure that connects her to the Internet (turn on the computer, click the little telephone icon, and click the blue “e” icon). Rather than spend precious mental energy on these steps (or finding the piece of paper on which I wrote them), she prefers to ask me to carry out her online business. Likewise, I have no idea where she keeps stack of bills to be paid or the extra toothpaste. Our specialized behavior works for us, because we know we can rely on each other.

Women typically have more complex and more powerful social networks than men, which may explain why women are more likely to ask for help — those who work harder on a daily basis maintaining their social networks (by talking on the phone, chatting online, or even passing notes in class) are more likely to be able to depend on that network being there the next time they need help.

I’m going out on a limb here, but I suspect that our brains are hard-wired so that, if we don’t feel the source of help will always be around whenever we need it, we prefer to solve problems on our own.
Students who are trained to rely on step-by-step instructions can feel lost when they enter college (or the real world) and realize that few problems are as neatly laid out, and few answers are as clear or as universally accepted, as their middle-school or high school textbooks might have suggested. It’s well-accepted that people remember things longer, understand them more fully, and feel a greater sense of satisfaction about the work they accomplish when they work things out by themselves. So perhaps generations of human experience has trained us that, in the long run, we really are better off when we solve problems on our own.

While it is annoying not to be able to set the VCR or fix a plumbing problem the right way the first time, truth be told, the consequences of our daily failures don’t mount up to much in modern society. The average person is surrounded by a lot of very complex gadgets that consume a great deal of our time — which is bothersome, but the inconvenience level is low enough that most of us aren’t motivated to change our behavior.

Imagine, for a moment, that we lived in a bizarre world where large packs of robotic dogs would appear randomly and bite out all our car tires, unless we performed a special ceremonial dance that put the robot-dogs in a trance. Since a car with four chewed-out tires is a serious inconvenience, people would probably learn how to perform that dance pretty quickly.

Soldiers are trained to follow orders. Firefighters know their equipment inside and out. Lawyers choose their words very carefully and pay close attention to the fine print in contracts.
When the stakes are high, people are much better at noticing details and following instructions.

We only really notice instructions, manuals, guidebooks or maps when we are already frustrated and angry. Too often, we’ll find ourselves sifting through registration cards, tossing away advertisements for related products, scanning diagrams of doohickeys and whatsits, none of which seems relevant to solving the immediate problem: the gear thingy on our gizmo is stuck and we don’t know why.

If, on the other hand, the manual is clearly written and well-organized, we can grab it off the shelf, find the info we need, and put it away again in half a minute — so perhaps we are likely to forget how helpful the manual really was.

We cannot change human nature — the fact remains that people are generally very impatient when it comes to following instructions or reading manuals. But equally at fault are the people who design objects that are too complex for their intended users. Some objects with complex functions simply have to be complex — but there’s plenty of needless complexity in our daily lives.

Modified change machine with 'Purchase Game Tokens Here' sign above it.At the left is a picture I took in a game room in a hotel in Wisconsin. Elsewhere in the game room were vending machines that took money, and arcade games that took only tokens.

The picture shows a typical change machine. Well above eye level is a large decorative sign that reads “PURCHASE GAME TOKENS HERE.” On the left front of the machine, someone has taped a piece of paper that reads “This machine gives out tokens, not quarters.”

Sherlock Holmes would confidently conclude that the hotel guests regularly ignored the large wall-mounted sign, thus leading a hotel employee to print out and post a clarification right on the machine.

“Why do we get so many stupid customers who don’t read signs?” the hotel worker was probably thinking. But posting yet another sign for the customer to read (or ignore) merely added to the problem.

Put yourself in the flip-flops of a poolside hotel guest with a caffeine craving. You spot the soda machine, near a familiar brown box with a huge label that reads “CHANGE.” Why should you expect it do dispense anything but change? You approach the machine, fishing in your wallet or purse for bills, and you notice the official-looking sign with the green, yellow and red boxes. Some safety inspector probably figured it was a good idea to place this important sign at eye level, but it has nothing to do with change or tokens, so you ignore it. The little brown machine also includes signs and labels bearing additional instructions on how to insert bills, a safety warning, and the telephone number and address of the company that services the machine.

You’ve already identified a familiar machine, and you expect it to act in a familiar way. That’s perfectly reasonable behavior, and not remotely idiotic or foolish. Most of the signs on and around this particular machine are not in the least helpful in getting you the change you want. So you ignore them.

Why didn’t the hotel management simply cover over the word “CHANGE” and replace it with “TOKENS”? A smaller line of type underneath it could supply directions to the nearest change machine. I bet few people would have trouble following those instructions!

You can’t change human nature. You can’t expect people to read every word in the instruction manual and study every diagram before they do anything, because that’s simply not the way people work in the real world. But you can change the way you write, in order to make the most of your reader’s limited attention span.

For more about writing technical reports, see “Short Reports: How To Write Routine Technical Documents.” For an excellent case study that describes how to offer criticism in a way that won’t enrage your reader, see “Ask Tog: How to Deliver a Report Without Getting Lynched.”