April 2018
Text by Leah Guren

Image: © selimaksan/istockphoto.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.




The secrets of user compliance – why users ignore instructions

As professional technical communicators, we make an effort to create clear, thorough instructions for our users so that they can use our products safely and effectively. But despite our best efforts, our clear instructions and careful warnings are often ignored. Why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Whether or not your users do what you want them to do is known as user compliance. And, in what may be no surprise, it turns out that user compliance is a complex variable affected by many different external and internal forces.

For example, an event I like to call The Great Venezuelan Rabbit Plan appeared in the news last year. President Nicolás Maduro came up with a plan to give baby rabbits to 15 communities. The idea was that rabbits are easy to raise and breed, and could provide an inexpensive source of protein to counter food shortages. After a few months, the minister of urban agriculture visited the communities to see how they were progressing. To his dismay, he found the people had named their rabbits, put bows on them, and brought them inside to sleep in their beds. They had, in fact, turned the rabbits into pets rather than nutritious dinners! The problem, the minister observed, was one of cultural acceptance. [1] In other words, your users don't always do what you expect them to!

User compliance matters because of the potential risks:

  • Risk for the user: Users who don't read documentation are at higher risk of hurting themselves or damaging the product through misuse.
  • Risk for the company: When users don't read the documentation, their questions or problems often return to the company's support department, creating higher costs. Further, unhappy customers may abandon the product or write negative reviews.

While there are many different factors that affect user compliance, I am focusing on the four that have the greatest influence on behavior.

The four main influences on compliance

Experts from the UX (usability/user experience) field have long tried to understand what motivates users to read or follow instructions, whether on the screen as part of the UI (user interface) or in the documentation.

  • Age: Usability experts are well aware of the strong link between age and reading patterns, especially with online content. Older users (65+) tend to read more and click less. They are reading and processing more slowly, but often more thoroughly. They are also more likely to miss some visual cues, such as links that may occur below the fold (that is, below the visible area in the window, requiring scrolling).
  • Education: Education usually correlates with reading level. For example, the most common indices that measure reading complexity (ARI, FOG, SMOG, etc.) are all based on education level. We know, for example, that low-literacy readers will skip over text or click any link to avoid reading. Further, education correlates with a user's ability to logically extrapolate from one situation to another and to access the importance or relevance of information.
  • Culture: Culture is a mixture of customs, beliefs, and societal expectations. Together, these things shape a user's worldview and can have a powerful influence on user compliance. For example, if a culture values individualism and people are encouraged to ask questions, simple statements of DO or DO NOT are less likely to be effective. For such users, you might need to add the reason for the instructions.
  • Industry: The field in which the user works is also an important factor. Users in heavily regulated industries are more likely to be well-trained in processes. They understand the need for regulations and are used to being regularly tested or recertified. They tend to be more used to reading and following instructions compared to users from more free-wheeling industries.

What doesn't work

Over the years, many product managers, tech pubs teams, and content developers have tried to find ways to improve user compliance. Sadly, most “common solutions” don't work:  

  • Telling people to read the docs: Do you have some text, such as "Read this document carefully before performing any maintenance procedure" in your documentation? If your readers are high-compliance users, they were already going to read it. If they are low-compliance users, they will ignore it. In other words, it makes no difference at all.
  • Overusing hazards: It is tempting to treat every bit of important information as a note, caution, warning, etc. However, this devalues the real hazards and causes the user to start ignoring all hazards. If someone isn't going to be injured or the system seriously damaged (including loss of data), don't treat the information as a hazard.
  • Yelling: Many people think that putting text in all caps will make the user pay attention. But in reality, it makes it more likely that the user will skip over the information. Using all caps reduces readability, because we rely on the variety of ascending, descending, and neutral letters to be able to read quickly and accurately. [2]
  • Unnecessary lines and boxes: Some designers think that a box around important information will help to highlight it. But for some reason, users tend to skip over content in boxes. As comic book author John Byrne once said, "They didn't read the stuff in the box. Apparently, people have a resistance to that."[3]
  • Expecting blind obedience: Users may not follow instructions that appear counter-intuitive or go against their experience. Your job is to explain just enough to make the instruction seem logical without including all the inane detail that the developers think is interesting. As Joel Spolsky said, "Experience shows that the more words you put on that dialog box, the fewer people will actually read it."[4] This holds equally true for documentation.

What might work

So if those things don't work, what can we do to help improve user compliance?

  • Write for the low end: Making text clear, simple, and direct is the best way to remove barriers. Even highly educated users will appreciate clear text. Remember, people don't read documentation the way they read other types of text. They aren't reading this for pleasure!
  • Considering culture and industry: For content targeted for one region, take the time to learn the national "personality". For an industry, consider how much regulation they are used to and how much training they receive.
  • Layering info: Don't dump everything in at the same level. Use good structure and design to allow users to scan or dive deeper. The concept of progressive reveal is as important in documentation as it is in UI. Further, good layering supports the needs of a mixed audience. For example, a procedure might include the reasons or rationale behind an instruction, presented as layered information under the main step text.
  • Testing: The best way to verify user compliance is through documentation usability testing. Follow the same practices as for the UX/UI testing, but be aware that users are always more compliant when they know they are being observed. After testing, modify the content to correct for obvious issues of low compliance.


It may appear that we have little control over user compliance. However, understanding the key influences on user behavior can help us estimate and reduce risk. By avoiding bad solutions, we can keep our documentation as useful, accessible, and effective as possible.
Do you have any experiences in improving user compliance that you would like to share?



[1] "Venezuela's 'Plan Rabbit' encounters 'cultural problem'", BBC News, September 14, 2017
[2] Kevin Larson, Advanced Reading Technology, Microsoft Corp., July 2004
[3] Eric Nolen-Weathington and Jon B. Cooke, Modern Masters Volume 7: John Byrne, TwoMorrows Publishing, 2006
[4] Avram Joel Spolsky, User Interface Design for Programmers, Apress, 2001