Why I Write Instructions Before Building Products

Instructions are hard to write well. And the punchline is they should be written well before you start building the product.

This will make sense if you’ve had to resort to instructions for products that don’t just work out of the box.

This will also make sense if you’ve been surprised by the inclusion of instructions with products that you think are very intuitive.

Instructions expose gaps in design

When we were building AirShr I remember my friend and co-founder Opher commenting that we should have written the instructions first. We both laughed when he said it. And he was right.

Our investment in design had taken us a long way but not all the way.

That’s because you use a different type of logic and communication style when drafting instructions.

Unlike sketching use cases to describe the functional aspects of a product, instructions force you to consider the expectations and biases you hold about people who you hope will use your product (and the instructions you hope they will read).

But it doesn’t stop there.

Instructions only exist on a fraction of the surface area of your post-it clad walls and whiteboards.

But they need to deliver a universal understanding of how to use a product. That can mean they are multilingual.

They also use diagrams and booklet style formats to fit inside the packaging. This introduces the idea of a product having a visual language.

Most products don’t in their early days.


An early version of AirShr’s product

These are just a few considerations that come up when writing product instructions. And the analogue of this for software-only businesses is writing the screens and instructions you see as you first launch an app. In the same way that screens are designed when the product is ready for launch, they also expose questions that can stop a new user dead in their tracks.

As a minimum viable experience

Writing instructions before you start building a product forces the creation of a minimum viable experience that clarifies a product’s intent.

A minimum viable product can come next. If that sounds counter-intuitive, think about what usually gets shipped with a product (minimum viable or fully mature).

I shared this point of view last week and a response I received was, ‘but I don’t know what I’m building?’

My response: Yes you do.

Any entrepreneur who is ready to talk to someone about their vision has also imagined what their product could be. They’ve usually been eating, sleeping and dreaming about their product for as long as they can remember.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting people use instructions as a substitute for a pitch deck or the first version of a product that helps solicit usability feedback.

I am saying that writing instructions will help add more value to early product design efforts.

The Michael Margolis Effect

My friend and internationally renowned story-telling coach Michael Margolis has helped me accelerate the development of product narratives. He has also helped me tell my story.

In the latter case, we went through a group exercise of pitching my story in 90 seconds to one person. After this, I had a 30-second to find the second person and pitch the same story. This time I only had 60 seconds to pitch the same story. Again another 30-second break. Round three and the same pitch but in 30 seconds.

I was amazed at how quickly the story became refined. Others in the group felt the same.

I’ve taken that technique and applied it to draw insights from the process of drafting instructions.

Try this.

Write the first draft of your product’s future instructions in one go.

Note how long this takes.

Share this draft with a teammate or friendly.

Take a 2-minute break and then repeat the drafting process. This time, restrict the available time to two-thirds of the time it took you to draft the original instructions.

Share this draft with a teammate or friendly.

Take another two-minute break and then draft them a final time. This time only allow one-third of the time it took you to draft the original instructions.

Share this draft with a teammate or friendly.

The net effect should be more concise instructions each time thanks to two factors. First, the feedback from your teammate or friendly and second, the actual process of crafting the instructions.

One last thing…

Instructions should be written first as a critical input for product development. This process alone can save time and reveal critical usability insights that can be missed because of a founder’s misplaced view that they are creating an ‘intuitive’ product.

Building an intuitive product is an ambition. No one gets it right from the beginning. I think it’s important to use every technique available to get off on the right foot. Writing instructions first has helped a lot and I hope it helps you too.