Following Instructions for Dummies

James Bach responded to my recent post, Are You Following the Instructions on the Paint Can?, with Studying Jeff Atwood's Paint Can.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I like these reads - James is definitely someone you don’t want to tangle with and I admire what you’re saying here. I read both posts (can’t believe i made it) and in reading his, it reminded me of a good friend (Harvard/Berekely grad with a PhD) who is insanely intelligent. If he chose to, he could take whatever side of an argument he wanted, dive into the minutae (or ride on top of it), and prove you wrong. Seems to me that’s what’s happening here.

I think you’re both right. Your point - there is a base level of intelligence that can be assumed - is dead on. If we didn’t have it, we would be in the trees eating our own poop. His point - instructions can be meaningless - is also dead on. The legalese one is the most illustrative of that.

I live in Hawaii and surf whenever I can. I find that the act of riding a wave is analogous to … well just about everything. It’s a dynamic environment full of all sorts of movement that you need to interpret and work with as you go. You could follow instructions from Kahuna and it will get you to a certain point (like paddling out and maybe standing up), but being a “skilled” surfer… well let’s just it takes time and the journey is long, and really only YOU know when you have this skill.

So my point is this - our industry is an ocean of opinions with waves of ideology and fads. Your “skill” only matters in what your client perceives as your value. Your ability to change, adjust, readjust, know when to “be manageable” and follow instructions and when to kick them to the curb - all of these things define your “skill”.

I appreciate both of your articles - made me think about a lot of things. Especially the 5-7 North that’s due in today. Gotta head out!


It would be a mistake to assume that James’ attacks on best practices are mere sophistry. “Best pratice” thinking (or rather, the absence of thinking about practices) is a serious problem in our profession.

Michael Bolton

All this talking about paint reminds me: Must read Paul Graham’s latest essay.

Personally, the main value I get from instructions comes in times and contexts where I don’t want to invest the time or energy into becoming an expert on something. One example, if you’ll forgive the descent into coding, is the use of StringBuilder in tight loops. I tell the developers that work for me to always use StringBuilder in cases where they are doing string addition in loops. Does this advice always lead to the most efficient code? Not so much. On the other hand, it makes sure that they never do the really dangerous things that might lead to death and destruction!

Must read Paul Graham’s latest essay.

It took me waaaay too long to figure this out: hackers and painters. :wink: Graham does have a new essay up, btw, and it’s excellent as usual.

Very interesting topic. Lot’s of these areas are addressed in Gary Klein’s book “Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions”. Despite the kooky title, it’s the book I had hoped Blink would be.

One sections has “considerations in communicating intent” which are all relevant in providing useful instructions.

  1. The purpose of the task (the higher-level goals).
  2. The objective of the task (an image of the desired outcome).
  3. The sequence of steps in the plan.
  4. The rationale for the plan.
  5. The key decisions that may have to be made.
  6. Antigoals (unwanted outcomes).
  7. Constraints and other considerations.

One might consider these aspects of the usability for a set of instructions.

Jeez - I don’t have enough time in the day to read the stuff I’m actually interested in. Now I have to read about house painting and actually remember something about it?

No thanks. I think I’ll just continue to ignore my crappy paint jobs. I mean - it’s not really for looks; the paint’s really there to hold things together, right?