1504.0 - Methodological News, Jun 2016  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 23/06/2016   
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The ABS has committed to convert more of its surveys to user-friendly online forms. Online forms are promising as a cost and time efficient alternative to non-digital collection methods. To make the online form option simple and easy to complete (cognitively simple and motivating), Respondent and Collection Methodology conducted a literature review about developing clear and effective instructions on how to access online forms. This article summarises the design principles for the layout, content, and cognitive aids for online survey instructions that can be used to maximise online form uptake.


Organisation: The organisation of information in instructions affects respondents’ ability to efficiently and successfully locate, categorise and extract information (Ganier, 2004). To accommodate the needs of all types of respondents, information should be accessible at two different levels. At the first level, information should be organised in a chronological linear format (e.g. starting with basic functions then progressively introducing more advanced functions) to accommodate for beginners and cautious respondents. At the second level, information should also be organised in a non-linear modular format (e.g. using colour-coded headings to enable quick location) to accommodate for experienced and trial-and-error respondents. Although design principles for both levels should be applied, more emphasis can be placed on one of the levels depending on the task complexity and type of respondents.

Text: Ease the reading and recall process for respondents by dividing instructions into segments (e.g. steps), numbering each segment, and presenting them in a vertical sequence (Frase, 1981; Mills et al, 1993).

Headings: Clear, precise and prominent headings should be used to allow respondents to activate schemas and elaborate on a conceptual model of what they are trying to achieve so that they can set goals, and monitor and regulate their activity (Dixon, 1987a, 1987b; Wright, 1977). Headings should be placed sufficiently early before the instructions to enhance learning; correspond to goals or sub-goals to enhance learning; and be a different size and colour font from the body of the text to make them more spatially prominent.


Words, word order and sentence structure: Familiar words should be used to make it easier for respondents to read, comprehend and draw inferences (Wright & Barnard, 1975). The order of words and actions should match the order in which they have to be performed (a temporal word order sequence). These principles should be used to develop short, active, affirmative sentences to place minimal cognitive load on respondents.

Level of Detail: The level of detail in instructions affects initial performance, learning, and the transfer of information (Eiriksdottir & Catrambone, 2011). Instructions for one-off tasks should be detailed and highly resemble the task to enhance initial performance. On the other hand, instructions for recurring tasks should be brief and abstract to enhance learning.

Cognitive Aids

Signals: Topic headings, typographic cues (e.g. font, type size, italics, bold, colour, underlined), white space (e.g. indents, bullets), grouping by proximity or colour, and attention-directing graphic elements (e.g. arrows, icons, shading, animation) should be used to make important elements more prominent and easier to cognitively organise (Mautone & Mayer, 2001).

Advance organisers: A brief analogy or diagram of the key variables or message can be presented before the instructions to prime respondents to organise the text into a congruent mental model (Mayer, 2008).

Dixon, P. (1987a) 'The processing of organizational and component step information in written directions', Journal of Memory and Language, 26(1), 24-35.
doi: 10.1016/0749-596x(87)90060-x

Dixon, P. (1987b) 'The structure of mental plans for following directions', Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13(1), 18-26.
doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.13.1.18

Eiriksdottir, E. & Catrambone, R. (2011) 'Procedural Instructions, Principles, and Examples How to Structure Instructions for Procedural Tasks to Enhance Performance, Learning and Transfer', Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 53(6) 749-70. doi: 10.1177/0018720811419154
Frase, L. T. (1981) 'Writing, text and the reader' in C. H. Frederiksen & J. F. Dominic (eds), Writing: The nature, development and teaching of written communication. Process, development and communication, vol. 2, Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ. pp. 209–221.
Ganier, F. (2004) 'Factors affecting the processing of procedural instructions: Implications for document design', IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 47(1), 15-26. doi: 10.1109/tpc.2004.824289
Mautone, P. D. & Mayer, R. E. (2001) 'Signaling as a cognitive guide in multimedia learning', Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(2), 377-389.
doi: 10.1037/0022-0663.93.2.377

Mayer, R. E. (2008) Learning and instruction, vol. 2, Pearson Merrill / Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
Mills, C. B., Diehl, V. A., Birkmire, D. P. & Mou, L. C. (1993) 'Procedural text: Predictions of importance ratings and recall by models of reading comprehension', Discourse Processes, 16(3), 279-315.
doi: 10.1080/01638539309544841

Wright, P. (1977) 'Presenting technical information: a survey of research findings', Instructional Science, 6(2), 93-134.
doi: 10.1007/bf00121082

Wright, P. & Barnard, P. (1975) '‘Just fill in this form’ — a review for designers', Applied Ergonomics, 6(4), 213-220. doi: 10.1016/0003-6870(75)90113-1

Further Information
For more information, please contact Laura Mouat (methodology@abs.gov.au)

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