Online Technical Writing:
Task Analysis and Task-Oriented Documentation

When you write instructions, procedures, and "guide" or user-guide information, you normally must use a task approach. That means providing steps and explanations for all the major tasks that users may need to perform.

Identifying Tasks

To write in a task-oriented manner, you first have to do some task analysis. That means studying how users use the product, interviewing them, and watching them. It can also mean interviewing marketing and product development people. If you can get your hands on the kinds of questions that help-desk people receive, that helps too.

But sometimes, you may not be in a position to do a thorough task analysis. Typically, product developers don't think about document until rather late. In these cirucumstances, it's often difficult to get marketing, development, engineering, and programming people to spend enough time with you to explain the product thoroughly. And so you end up doing a certain amount of educated guesswork. The developer is more likely to review your draft and let you inow if your guesswork is right.

To develop your own task analysis, you can study the user interface (buttons, menus, options, etc.) of the product. This goes for both hardware and software. Consider this interface for an icon editing tool:

From just this snippet of the interface, you can identify several obvious tasks:

  • Start a new icon project
  • Open an existing icon project for editing
  • Rename an icon project (Save As)
  • Exit AZ Icon Edit

Interface for AZ Icon Edit

Now, look at the menu options for the next parts of the menu. You can see that when people are using this icon editor, they'll also most likely be doing these tasks:

  • Undo a mistake
  • Capture an image or some part of it
  • Cut something out of an icon project
  • Copy something out of an icon project
  • Paste something into an icon project
  • Flip the entire image horizontaly or vertically
  • Rotate the image left
  • Clear the project, which probably means start over
  • Restore, which you'll have to ask around, experiment with, or dig into the programming spec to find out about
  • Draw with a thick. medium, or thin line.

But now look at the interface without the menu options hanging down. What additional tasks can you see? As with a lot of graphical user interfaces, some of the icons duplicate the menu options. For example, the bulleted-list icon enables you to select a thin, medium, or thick line the same way clicking on Options does. However, there are some new tools here, not available elsewhere in the interface:

  • Draw straight lines (you'll have to experiment to see the difference between the two pencil icons)
  • Draw freehand lines (the wavy-line icon)
  • Draw unfilled rectangles (sharp edges) and unfilled rectangles (rounded edges)
  • Draw unfilled ovals and filled ovals
  • Fill with color (the hypodermic needle)
  • Select portions of the image to move, cut, or rotate (the dotted-line icon)
  • Capture images or parts of images (the net, but how does it work?)
  • Draw filled rectangles (sharp edges) and filled rectangles (rounded edges)
  • Select background color (the Screen button)
  • Select line or fill color (the double-box icon)

There's a lot you still don't know about this software, but you've already done a lot of guesswork toward defining the major tasks. You'd want to group and consolidate things much more tightly than above, perhaps like the following:

  • Creating, editing, renaming, and saving icons
  • Selecting foreground and background color
  • Drawing lines, rectangles, and ovals
  • Cutting, pasting, and copying objects
  • Moving, flipping, and rotating objects

You can see that in this rough task list, there is no trace of tasks such as filling an object with color, capturing images, clearing the workspace, undoing a mistake, or restoring. But as you work, these details will begin to find their place in your scheme. Now, stand back from the details of the interface and put yourself in the place of an icon designer. What questions is that individual likely to ask? How do I change the color of the background? We've got that covered. How do I change the thickness of the lines I draw? Got that one covered too. How do I make the background transparent? Hmmm . . . that will be an issue for the color section, but it will take some research.

Different Approaches to Documentation

When you write for users, you have a choice of two approaches, function orientation and task orientation, the latter of which is by far the better choice.

Writing with a function orientation. It ought to be obvious how to proceed after a task analysis, but apparently not. Computer publications�if not technical publications in general�often seem to stray into a non-task-oriented style of writing. That's probably because it's sometimes almost possible to translate elements of a user interface into a set of tasks. But, no! That just doesn't work.

Another reason why user guide instructions sometimes turn out not task oriented has to do with product specifications. Product specifications, which are written by and for programmers, engineers, developers, are written in terms of required function:

File menu button Enables user to create a new file, open an existing file, rename a file, etc.
Crop icon Enables user to cut selected segment of image.

You might call this approach function-oriented writing because it systematically explains each function, feature, or interface element of a product. Unfortunately, this approach shows up in user guides meant for nontechnical readers � perhaps because the writers are inexperienced, untrained, or technical; or else the writers have been called in too late to do much else but polish the developers' spec.

The function-oriented approach almost works sometimes. But "almost" and "sometimes" are not good enough. It almost works because the names of interface elements and functions sometimes match the tasks they support. For example, the Open menu option is pretty intuitive: open an existing file. Others are not. For example, what do you suppose is restored by the Restore button in the AZ Icon Edit interface? Also, some interface elements don't accomplish tasks all by themselves. In Photoshop, for example, you can't crop text by pressing the Crop menu option. You have to first click the text-selection button, then draw a selection box around the part of the image you want to keep, then press the Crop button.

Writing with a task orientation. Instead of the function-oriented approach, use the task-oriented approach. Identify the tasks users will need to perform with the product, and then structure your document accordingly. Make your headings and subheadings task oriented in their phrasing. Task-oriented phrasing means phrasing like "How to adjust the volume, "Adjusting the volume," or "Adjust the volume." It does not mean phrasing like "Volume" or "Volume Adjustment." Here are some additional examples:

Problem phrasing Task-oriented phrasing
Capture Capturing images
Screen button Selecting background or foreground objects
Rectangles Drawing rectangles
Oval icon Drawing ovals and circles

When you have defined user tasks, organized them into logical groups, and have defined task-oriented headings, you're ready to write! Here's an excerpt:

Drawing Rectangles and Ovals

You can use the icon editor to draws squares, rectangles, ovals, and circles.

Draw a rectangle. To draw a rectangle:

  1. Ensure that you have selected the foreground color you want. (See "Selecting foreground color.")
  2. Click the rectangle icon.
  3. Position the mouse pointer in the drawing area where you want to the rectangle to appear, hold down the left mouse button, and drag to create the rectangle.

Draw an oval. To draw an oval:

  1. Ensure that . . .

In this excerpt, you can see that an overall task-oriented approach is taken and that task-oriented phrasing is used for the headings. Notice too that numbered lists are used to guide readers step by step through the actions involved in the task.

Interested in courses related to this page or a printed version? See the resources page. Return to the main menu of this online textbook for technical writing.

Information and programs provided by [email protected].