Trouble with instructions? You’re not alone. Researchers at the University of Michigan have confirmed that difficult-to-read instructions dissuade people from embarking on tasks, and impart a suspicion in their readers that the task at hand will be difficult. As far as I’m concerned, this is major vindication.
Few sympathies may be available to me in this particular audience (you PopSci DIY-ers are as proficient as they come), but the last time I attempted to assemble a piece of “easy to assemble” furniture according to its instructions, I was truly humbled. I did a lot of unfolding and flipping of pages, counting and re-counting of parts, and then, with a “F*$% it”, did away with the instructions altogether. How hard could it be? Building a bookshelf is like dying hair; no one uses the instructions. Right? Had I not paid for the bookshelf, I’d not have bothered building it; the instructions themselves dulled the purchase’s promise for me. But I was determined. Or angry. Whatever. And as it turned out, it wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought at first glance. The final product was a little wobbly, but nothing a wedge of cardboard couldn’t fix.
Participants in the University of Michigan study proved that my frustration with the instructions was not the result of general impatience on my part, or of an undetected learning disability, but in fact was most likely a side-effect of the instructions—or, rather, their presentation—themselves. When given instructions for an exercise routine that were written in a difficult-to-read font, subjects estimated that the routine would be more challenging and time consuming than subjects given the same instructions in a simple, clear font predicted. Similarly, when given a recipe in fonts that were easy to read and difficult to read, those subjects who received the former batch thought the recipe itself would be simple, while their counterparts found it intimidating. In both cases, participants receiving instructions in fonts they could easily read were more likely to attempt to follow the instructions at all.
So, doctors: clean up your handwriting. Lawyers: you can use your discretion on this one. Target stores: for the sake of young apartment-dwellers everywhere, get it together with the instructions! The rest of you: science has confirmed the obvious. If you’re giving instructions, keep it clear and simple. You’ll be far more likely to get what you want.