Diagrams in procedural instructions

Complex information can often be explained better by presenting it in diagrams, flow charts and tables. By using these presentation modes, the information is split up in smaller chunks that are put in separate boxes or cells. The connections between the chunks are shown by their lay-out, connecting lines and arrows.

The advantage of using flow charts is clearly demonstrated in a study of public information, which I did with Carel Jansen. In an experiment, we presented information on a Dutch regulation on Rent Rebate in four different brochures: two in ‘normal’ prose, one in highly structures prose, and one containing a series of flow charts. When participants were asked to use one of these brochures to verify whether in a particular case someone was entitles to Rent Rebate, and if so, which sum he could expect, it turned out that those participants who used the flow chart brochure, outperformed the others.

A study with Angelique Boekelder showed also that flow charts lead to better performance. In this case, participants had to operate a technical device. However, tables turned out to be less effective than flow charts in this study.

Publications about this subject in English 

  • Jansen, C. & Steehouder, M. (1984). Improving the text of a public leaflet. Information Design Journal 4, 10-18.
  • Boekelder, A. & Steehouder, M. (1998). Switching from instructions to equipment: the effect of graphic design. In Zwaga, H.J., Boersema, T. & Hoonhout, H.C.M. (eds) Visual information for everyday use (pp. 67-73). London: Taylor & Francis.
  • Boekelder, A. & Steehouder, M. (1998). Selecting and switching: some advantages of diagrams for presenting instructions. IEEE Transactions on professional communication 41, 229-241.