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Hi! I’m Vicky, A professional ergonomist who spends time in the wilds of the real world

How to write a recipe (so people can actually follow it)

How to write a recipe (so people can actually follow it)

It is flat pack furniture that gets a lot of attention (and a lot of jokes - check out some here) when it comes to designing instructions. However, the instructions I use most frequently in everyday life are recipes.  

As an ergonomist I call this instructional design, but in the real world I call it trying to make a tasty meal with the minimum amount of reading and attention.

What could possibly go wrong?

First, I have to read part of the recipe, then I go away and do some cooking, before coming back to read the next step.  This naturally disrupts the flow of reading and this disruption increases the risk of error. When I come back to the recipe, I might come back to the wrong place and so either repeat or miss out a step.  

Another challenge are the different expectations between the recipe writer (usually a professional chef) and me (not a professional chef). This can lead to misunderstandings, where I may not understand the terms used, or I may have a different idea of how to perform a task. The idea of different mental models between a designer and a user is a common cause of ergonomic problems - and recipes are no different.

Finally, there is a lot of subjectivity in the descriptions used in recipes. How crispy is crispy bacon?  How soft do leeks need to be before they are softened?  That subjectivity can lead to misunderstandings and just plain getting things wrong.

As a result, not all recipe books and blogs are created equal. There are some which are easy to follow, quickly and accurately, producing great results. There are others which lead to frustration and bad tasting food.

So… how would an ergonomist write a recipe to give the best chance of people being able to follow it?

Start with an understanding of the task.  Almost every ergonomics project starts with an analysis of the task being performed. So this is definitely where an ergonomist would start recipe writing - with an understanding of all the actions that the person cooking the dish will need to perform.  

Break the task down into meaningful steps.  For anything other than the simplest dish, the actions will then need to be grouped in a meaningful way.  Most recipe books group actions together, but often those groups are based on the time at which tasks are performed rather than how we make sense of them as a user. Meaningful groups makes it much easier for the person cooking the meal to understand what is required, and are a great way to structure the actions required to make the dish.

Give each step an overall aim or title.  Setting the goal for each step has so many advantages, but is rarely used in cook books - this Reader’s Digest recipe book is a notable exception. We love to understand what we are working towards, and a goal or title helps us understand the how the tasks group together - in psychology this is called chunking. Chunking enables us to hold more information in memory, which is really handy when following a recipe.

Goals in recipes

Keep each step short.  It is much easier to recall where you are in a list of short tasks than finding your place in a big paragraph of text.  Keeping each step short and containing a single action or group of actions will make errors less likely.

Big paragraph recipe

Think about language.  As the person cooking the dish will not have the same level of knowledge as the recipe writer, it is really important that any technical terms are explained. It is also important to be consistent with terms used, so that the same word is always used to describe the same thing. This will help minimise confusion and uncertainty, and so help keep the cooking on track.

Fill it with pictures.  The easiest way to resolve any uncertainty, though, is to illustrate exactly what the recipe writer means. Rather than assume the person cooking the recipe likes their bacon as crispy as you do - include a picture.  By showing what the food looks like having completed each step, the recipe follower has a goal to work towards and will know as soon as they start to go off track This is one place where recipe blogs do especially well - lots of pictures, showing you each step. 

Pictures of steps

Lay out the steps to make it easy to follow.  The last stage is to lay all the information and pictures out so that it is easy to follow, and ergonomics makes loads of good recommendations here:

  • Make each step clear and distinct from the one before. 

  • Keep the steps in the right sequence.

  • Keep all the instructions in sequence (I am talking about you - cooked rice, chopped onions being hidden in the ingredients list). 

  • Provide cues (usually it is numbers) to make it easy for users to remember their place when they return to the recipe. 

Recipe steps

So there you have it - an ergonomist’s guide to writing a recipe so that it can be followed easily.

I would love to see your examples of good and bad recipe design - both in books and online. What are your experiences of using recipe apps? Do you have any other advice you would give to recipe writers?

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