Customers spend a lot of time searching--whether on Google, in a store, or in the recesses of their minds, they're looking for the right answer, guidance or the fastest way to get something done.

That's why it's so important to provide customers--or any audience--with helpful instructions.

In fact, Richard Saul Wurman, the information guru who founded TED Talks, said this: "Half of all our communication is the giving and receiving of instructions."

I was reminded of this last weekend when I had to go to the hospital to get an injection. Like many hospitals, this one has a confusing floor plan, since it's been renovated many times over the years.

So the scheduler warned me that the injection center was hard to find. To guide me, she handed me a printed sheet with these directions:

Directions to A3 (rooms B3261-B3264) facing the front visitor's desk: Make a right and go down the hall to the Borden elevators. Take the Borden elevators to the 3rd floor. Step out of the elevator and make a left. Then make an immediate left onto A3. You will see the nurse's station on your left hand side. Proceed half way past the nurse's station and make a right. Go past the patient and family waiting area and bear a slight right. Rooms will be directly in front of you (Rooms B3261-B3261). Signage will also help to provide directions once you step out of the elevators.

This made my head hurt, but it got even worse when I got to the hospital on Saturday morning and discovered that the directions were annoyingly imprecise. What was A3, anyway (all the signs had Bs on them)? How far to walk to get to the nurse's station? Where was the "signage" that was promised?

I made it (with help from a nice nurse), but I realized that the people involved had never read Mr. Wurman's wonderful 1992 book, Follow the Yellow Brick Road: Learning to Give, Take, and Use Instructions.

Mr. Wurman advises that all instructions have these six components:

  1. Mission--The purpose or aim
  2. Destination--The end result
  3. Procedure--Specific details on what you do
  4. Time--How long each step will take
  5. Anticipation--Things you should expect along the way
  6. Failure--How to know if something goes wrong

These building blocks can be used to compose any type of instructions, from explaining how to use a new product to helping employees enroll in medical benefits or get reimbursed for travel expenses.

Examples of effective instructions can be found everywhere--even in popular music. Here's a song recorded by American country singer Billy Currington (written by Luke Bryan and Rachel Thibodeau) called, appropriately enough, " Good Directions." The song tells the story of a rural guy approached by a woman driver looking for directions to the interstate. Here are the instructions the guy provides:

I told her way up yonder past the caution light
There's a little country store with an old Coke sign
You gotta stop in and ask Miss Bell for some of her sweet tea
Then a left will take you to the interstate
But a right will bring you right back here to me



Sure, "way up yonder" could be a little more precise, and I'd add information about time ("five minutes to the Coke sign") and failure ("If you get to the red barn, you've gone too far.").

But you get the picture: When it comes to providing instructions, be specific.