The Art and Science of SaaS Online Instructions

Write Clear Instructions for Your SaaS Platform

If your web-based software relies on self-service, as many software as a service (SaaS) products do, clear instructions are vitally important. Instructions are one of the most searched for content on the Internet. Whether it’s how to use a product, work through a process, or learn a new skill, people turn to websites, social media, and apps. Printed instructions, manuals, and user guides are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Online instructions also provide one of the greatest sources of frustrations in the user experience. Not only does this lead to increased customer service calls, but it also makes people suspicious and unhappy with brand, services, and products. 

Writing great instructions is bought an art and a science. The reason is because it is not that easy.

Try this as an experiment. Write down the steps it takes you to put on a jacket. Now put the jacket on a chair and pretend you have never seen or put on a jacket before. Try putting it on following ONLY your instructions.

So far when we have conducted this experiment, we get a 100% failure rate. Why? Because putting on a jacket is a very complex process that requires explicit and clear instructions.

That leads us to our top tips on how to write instructions:

  • Don’t expect great instructions to save a bad product or process design. Technical writers are often placed in the situation of having to explain a product or process that simply is designed badly. Kathy Palokoff, our Director of Language, recalls working at IBM and having to explain how a mainframe and PC interfaced. It called for a seven-keystroke step, which would have stymied the best contortionist. The product was sent back for usability re-evaluation and delayed the software release for 60 days. Instead, capture and analyze data from customer service inquiries and conduct usability studies to pinpoint areas where instructions are causing user experience problems.

  • Use visuals as well as words. Create a video to go along with your visual instructions. Use custom illustrations or photos within the written instructions to emphasize key steps. People learn in different ways so this covers more bases.

  • Treat steps as steps. Use numbers to take people through a beginning to end process. Bullet points do not have order; numbering means start here and follow these steps.

  • Do not combine multiple tasks within a step. Think of it like a recipe. There is an important sequence of events and you can’t simultaneously butter the pan while you’re mixing the ingredients.

  • Be precise and clear. Don’t use vague language. Telling someone to “attach it to the right side” is not useful because it is fraught with misunderstanding. Essentially, assume people are not as smart and careful as you are.

  • Hire an expert. Good instruction writing comes with experience, training, and talent. Seek out a technical writer who can bring a fresh and unbiased look at your products and processes while your internal team provides subject matter expertise.

Okay, are you ready to try the experiment with putting on a coat again? How did you do this time with your instructions?

Writing clear and effective content, including instructions, is covered in our workshop Creating Voice Through Content