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Instructional Design Work Instructions

10 Tips for Better Work Instructions

19 min read - published on April 10, 2018


Here are some useful hacks for writing work instructions. Easily create them with the SwipeGuide instruction platform.

Where work is done, mistakes are made. Human errors account for 9 out of 10 incidents in the workplace. These errors result in loss of production, damage to equipment, and injuries. This costs industries billions per year and with work getting more and more complex this is a growing pain.

A lot of the mistakes in the workplace can be avoided with clearer work instructions that ensure quicker, better and safer performance of tasks. Also, it gives greater flexibility and ensures standardization of output.

Work instructions have been around for quite some time, but their effectiveness is limited due to the form (paper-based), structure (process-oriented), and content (text). We have collected 10 tips for you to start creating better work instructions with the SwipeGuide software.


1. User-centered design.

Work instructions are meant to help workers perform their jobs. However, all too often we encounter instructions that don’t focus on that goal at all. They are designed to show compliance with standards. They are made for safety auditors. Created by engineers showing off their technical understanding. Of course, it is important to be compliant, but if you really want your work instructions to be effective you need to start with the employee:

  • What is the information they need to perform their tasks?
  • What is the best way to get this information to them?
  • How can you deliver this information at the moment of need? 

This “outside-in” instructional design approach really works wonders when creating more effective work instructions in our software.


work instructions design



2. From paper binders to digital in your pocket.

Now is the time of digital transformation - and in the space of work instructions, there is a lot of room for improvement. In many places, we come across paper binders full of work instructions and procedures that are unhandy and not available when employees actually need them. Luckily, digital devices are getting common in the workplace and they have the power of bringing instructions closer to where the action is. Especially smartphones and tablets can bring instructions powered by the SwipeGuide software from the desk in the office to the pocket of workers in the factory.





3. From abstract text to crystal clear visuals.

Work instructions often are text-based and thus leave quite some room for interpretation and misunderstanding. If work takes place in a context that is highly visual, why use words to describe what needs to be done? The brain processes visuals 60.000 times faster than text.  Combining images with text in a smart way is proven to make instructions even quicker to process and easier to understand. We see cases in factories, breweries, distribution centers and healthcare institutions that all benefit enormously from visual instructions. Powerful illustrations, photos, animations, and videos help workers perform their job in a clear and concise way.


work instructions clear visuals



4. Write instructions in an accessible style.

In most cases, work instructions include both visuals and text. Text is not an issue, but make sure the text is easy to understand. This requires application of writing guidelines and templates that ensure the clarity and understanding of text. Simplified Technical English has some good pointers and some basic things to keep in mind are:


  • Length of noun clusters: no more than 3 words

  • Sentence length: no more than 20 words
  • Paragraphs: no more than 6 sentences

  • Avoid slang and jargon

  • Be as specific as possible

  • Use simple verb tenses

  • Use active voice

5. From ‘’machine-oriented’’ to ‘’task-based.’’

Technical writing for work instructions is often done by engineers and tends to be focusing on the device and its specific parts. In order to improve the user experience, instructions should be task-focused and written from the user’s perspective - not the product-perspective.  We call this the “outside-in approach.”.


work instructions task focused



6. From ‘’everything covered’’ to ‘’minimalist instructions.’’

We come across a lot of work instructions covering all the technical details of equipment and all sorts of exceptions. Keep in mind that our brain is trained to ignore information that is not relevant for ‘survival.’ In the workplace, this means information needs to be relevant and actionable. Avoid information overkill. Focus instructions on the regular tasks performance with some extra attention for critical incidents. These are the process steps where a lot of errors occur and/or mistakes have a big impact (e.g. loss of time, unsafe operations). Minimalist instruction theory offers more design guidelines and templates for work instructions and it is valuable to check them out before designing work instructions. They can be so much better!



7. Integrate into training.

In many cases, just walking in and doing your job with work instructions doesn’t work. Obviously, you’ll need some basic understanding of the context you work in before you can start. Often companies offer training programs or e-learning modules to new employees to acquire the basic knowledge and skills. However, research has shown that the retention of this knowledge is difficult. A large percentage of the knowledge and skills from the training programs are simply forgotten before people even enter the workplace - and that’s where work instructions come in. By integrating them into the training, the retention in the workplace can be improved. When people get familiar with the work instructions already as part of the training they know how to use them properly in the workplace and guarantees better performance in the job.


work instructions training



8. Well designed activation.

Employees need to have access to the right instruction at the moment of need. This means you have to think about activating the content. Take into account what needs exist at what point in time or at what location. The need for specific instructions varies. A new employee starting off at a machine has different needs that a service engineer that performs a troubleshooting task. Technologies like QR codes, NFC, and augmented reality can make a whole new instruction experience possible. With our instruction journey canvas, you can think of better ways of reaching your employees with the work instructions they need in different stages. 


work instructions activation



9. Track to improve.

Creating work instructions is an important step. But, tracking them to learn about work performance & possible improvements is just as critical. Digital work instructions allow you to follow the action and learn from both the user behaviour, the sentiment and their feedback. The data collected can be turned into valuable insights for improvement. In a production environment, even the smallest optimization to procedures and/or work instructions can have a huge impact. We advise checking the analytics dashboards in your work instruction software on a regular basis. Discuss with your team what you can learn from them, and then act. Continue to improve your processes and work instructions to beat your competition!



10. Foster sharing and collaboration.

The ownership of the work instructions should lie in the workplace. If team leaders together with their staff have the ownership they will share and collaborate to improve them. They take pride in the instructions they created and collaborate to make them even better. We have seen cases where factories shared their best guides with other factories to help them improve performance. This way of knowledge sharing brings a new vibe to your company, but also helps to improve day by day.

At SwipeGuide we support companies getting to effective work instructions with our cloud software. We enable creation, maintenance, and sharing of visual step-by-step instructions to smart apps that fit any device.


published April 10, 2018


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