Declarative information in procedural texts

Instructional texts tell users how to perform a task, e.g. how to operate an electronic device or how to use computer software. The core information therefore is procedural – the actions that have to be done to do the job. But this procedural information is often supplemented with explanations about the working of the system or the technology, or about the uses of particular functions. That kind of information is called declarative information.

I supervised two PhD studies that investigated whether declarative information is read by users of manuals, and what the effect of declarative information might be.

Nicole Ummelen focused on computer manuals. The participants in her experiments had to learn how to use a particular complex spreadsheet program (Cubecalc), and they could refer to the manual which was displayed on another computer screen. The text blocks of this manual ware blurred and therefore unreadable, except the headings. By clicking with the mouse on a text block, it became readable. By using this click-and-read method, it was possible to register exactly which text block were read, and how long. The results showed that the participants were surely interested in declarative information. But they did not take advantage of the extra information; they did not complete their tasks better or faster. However, the declarative information did have a long-term effect, since the performance became better and the participants were more able to restore errors after some time.

 The follow-up research by Joyce Karreman was intended to check whether these effects occurred also with user instructions for devices. This turned out not to be the case in three subsequent series of experiments. Although the declarative information was read, it did not have an effect on performance, neither immediately, nor after some time.

Joyce Karreman did not only study whether participants worked better and faster, but also whether declarative information affects the efforts (cognitive load) of the participants, their confidence in being able to work with the device, or their appreciation of the instructions. In addition, she checked whether declarative information helps with leaning to use another device similar to the one that has been used already. All results were negative. It even turned out that declarative information is an extra burden when someone learns to work with a device, and that is affects ones confidence negatively.

By carefully comparing the results of these experiment with those of Nicole Ummelen and other researchers, Joyce Karreman concluded that declarative information probably helps only when the procedural information is incomplete ore vague. That does not necessarily mean that they are not well-designed. Sometimes it is simply not possible to be completely exact. In those cases, declarative information might still be useful. However, more research is needed to prove this expectation.

Publications in English about this research

Steehouder, M., Karreman, J. & Ummelen, N. (2000). Making sense of step-by-step procedures. Paper presented at the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference and ACM Special Interest Group on Documentation Conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 24-27.

Karreman, J., Dixon, P. & Steehouder, M. (2001). What do you need to know about your telephone? The influence of functional information on operating devices. In: Degand, L., Bestgen, Y., Spooren, W. & Van Waes, L. (Eds). Multidisciplinary approaches to discourse. (pp. 99-110). Amsterdam: Stichting Neerlandistiek VU; Münster: Nodus Publikationen. ISBN 90-72365-68-2.

Karreman, J., & Steehouder, M. (2003). Effects of Declarative Information in Instructions for Use. Paper presented at the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, Orlando FL.

Karreman, J., & Steehouder, M. (2004). Some effects of system information in instructions for use. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication 47(1), 34-43.

Karreman, J., Ummelen, N. & Steehouder, M. (2005). procedural and declarative information in user instructions: what we do and don't know about these information types. Paper presented at the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (IPCC2005), Limerick.