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Written by Naomi Cherne

When participants in our studies use a product and skip a step or do something that the product’s designer did not intend, we ask them about it. In the discussion that follows they often tell us, very confidently, that they would have known what to do if the manual had emphasized that particular instruction, for example by making it bold, printing it in red, and/or underlining it. This may seem to make sense: the idea is that if some text did not grab your attention, it should be made grabbier. The manual’s designer may hear this feedback and immediately reach for ctrl-B. After all, the point of talking to these participants is to use the information we get from them, right?

Yes and no. This feedback is speculative. We have no idea if that participant would actually have known to take that particular action if that particular instruction had been presented in the way they describe. We have no idea if any difference in presentation would have influenced their behavior. In fact, people tend to overestimate the impact of safety information and formatting on safety behavior. When a participant reveals that they did not notice an instruction, what we have learned is that the instruction did not involuntarily capture their attention. We have not learned how to capture their attention.

Visual attention can be more complex and trickier to control than we might assume. For example, the grabbiness of color, size, brightness, and even motion is influenced by an observer’s goals. That means that making something bold and red will not guarantee that someone using your product will notice it, even if you make that bold red thing big and jumpy. The grabbiness will depend on lots of factors that are internal and external to the observer, such as how tired and stressed they are, what they are thinking about, what they are trying to do, how much they care, what their expectations are, how dark or cold or dusty it is where they are, how far away they are, what else is around, etc.

For some interactive demonstrations of visual attention, check out:

We also do not know if changes to the presentation of the information will lead people to encounter different use events. For example, effective visual emphasis of one instruction may detract from other instructions. Attention is selective, and increasing the number of emphasized steps, notes, alerts, etc can be expected to dilute the impact of formatting techniques.

By all means, designers, try it out. Just do not assume it will work, and make sure to test for new problems.

How can Core help?

We help designers refine their instructions on a regular basis, and there are a number of ways we do this.

We can do an expert review of instructions, and offer suggestions for changes based on our knowledge of human factors, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and design principles. Our in-house designer can even turn these suggestions into instructive materials.

We can run studies of a product in which we have participants follow the instructions step-by-step. This helps uncover what is confusing, misleading, and even incorrect for their context of use (e.g., an instruction that goes against a hospital’s policies). When changes are made to the instructions, this can help reveal if these changes introduce new problems.

We can run studies of a product in which we simulate real-life use; that is, the instructions are available for participants to use as they would in real life. For some participants, that might mean reading it word-for-word before they pick up the product. For other participants, that might mean ignoring it completely. This approach is useful for learning how people might use the instructions in real life, what leads them to approach the instructions, and what drives them away.