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- How to Write in “Action Units” in Technical Writing - May 31, 2017
© Ugur Akinci
An “action unit” in technical writing is a series of consequences arising from the same single action.
For example, if you drop an apple, it will fall, perhaps roll on the ground and then come to a rest. All of that constitutes a single “action unit.”
In a software context, if you click a command button or a link, it may open a second window, change something on the same screen, or trigger an action of some sort. After that, the software will come to rest (so to speak) and “wait” for your next action. All of that, taken all together, is called an “action unit.”
When you are writing procedural task steps, try to finish one action unit in one step for easier comprehension.
Do not break up one action unit into multiple steps since that will increase the cognitive load on the reader. Don’t force the users to consider multiple steps simultaneously in order to mentally reconstruct a single action unit.
Let me illustrate the point with an example.
Consider the following consecutive steps in a fictional technical document:
“(1) Click the OPEN button.
(2) This will open the REGISTRATION screen.
(3) Fill in the FIRST NAME and LAST NAME fields.”
A second version of the same text might look like this:
“(1) Click the OPEN button.
(2) When the REGISTRATION screen opens, fill in the FIRST NAME and LAST NAME fields.”
Even though it is now down to only two steps, it still requires considering the first and second steps together in order to understand what constitutes a single action from beginning to the end.
Opening of the REGISTRATION screen is an inescapable consequence of clicking the OPEN button. Thus they belong to the same action unit.
Can we say the same for filling FIRST NAME and LAST NAME fields? No, we cannot because the user is at a liberty to fill those fields or not. Thus we cannot say that filling those fields belong to the same action unit as clicking the OPEN button and displaying the REGISTRATION screen.
Here follows a better description of the same process:
“(1) Click the OPEN button to display the REGISTRATION screen.
(2) Fill in the FIRST NAME and LAST NAME fields.”
Even though we still have two steps, the first step now presents a complete action unit with no unnecessary cognitive load to interpret the second step as a consequence of the first one. Both the cause and result of the action is contained within the first step.
Here is an exercise for you.
Can you re-write these steps, each step organized as complete action unit?
“(1) Turn the lever to right 90 degrees.
(2) Keep turning until you hear three rapid BEEPS.
(3) Click DONE on the LED screen.
(4) When verification screen is displayed, enter your SECURITY ID and click OK.
(5) A warning message will display asking “Do you really want to complete the procedure and log off?”
(6) Click the YES button and log off.”
If you submit your solutions to this exercise I’d be happy to give you a short feedback and tell you if it’s OK or not.
Remember, there is no single word-by-word solution in the sense that, the individual words used may different slightly from one solution to another but every step should represent a single action unit. That’s the whole point to the exercise.
(Photo courtesy of Filipe Dos Santos Mendes at Unsplash dot com)