Sequential structure

Sequential structure follows a clear order to make it easy for users to follow step by step. It can suit instructions or a report of an event.

Use a sequential structure to explain steps or a specific order

A sequential structure shows a process, a series of steps or an order of events.

Use a sequential structure for:

  • instructions – such as how-to guides, recipes and directions
  • step-by-step content formats – such as forms
  • reports of events – such as incident reports, histories and case studies.

This type of structure helps users understand how items in the sequence relate to each other.

Use the right writing style. For example, instructions and transactions are more direct and use the imperative. Reports of events usually use the past tense of the verb.

Example

Instructions

Complete step 1 before moving to step 2. [The verb ‘complete’ is in the imperative mood.]

Incident report

The support worker placed the transfer board under the client’s left upper leg. [The verb 'placed' is in the past tense.]

Accessibility requirements

User needs:

  • I can change the content's presentation without losing information or structure.
  • I can find and navigate the content and determine where I am on the webpage.

Fundamentals:

  • Write clear page titles. The title is the first thing a screen reader user will hear and is the first item to appear in search results.
  • Order the content in a sequence that is meaningful for the user.
  • Organise content in a clear order using section headings. Describe the topics or the following section in the headings.
  • Make sure all users can navigate through all content in the intended order, regardless of the technology they're using. Use the same navigation elements across services.

Web Content Accessibility Guidelines success criteria:

Split processes into balanced steps

Dividing a process into a sequence of steps can be challenging. Create the right number of steps.

  • Too few steps might mean you have left out important information or grouped too many actions under one heading.
  • Too many steps might mean you have divided the process into steps so small they are meaningless.

If the process is very complex, group steps into broader stages of the process.

The broad stages can fit into a higher-level sequential structure, or into topics using a hierarchical structure. This combination of structures can help users revisit a topic.

If you use a combination of structures, design menu and link items based on how users find their way through the content. Be consistent in the language, style and design of headings at the same level across the content.

For example, in a course registration process, a student might decide to choose a different course session after entering their personal details. Start with the most important information – the course selection – so people don’t waste time trying to find it.

Example

Course options

  1. Select the course
  2. Select the session

Personal details

  1. Enter your name
  2. Enter your contact details
  3. Enter any dietary requirements

Payment

  1. Select the payment method
  2. Enter details
  3. Select submit
  4. Print the receipt

Write clear instructions users can follow

For instructional and transactional content, people want to know what they need to do. They don’t need long explanations of the process.

If an explanation is needed, consider:

  • how you can help people keep their focus
  • what the minimum amount of information is
  • whether a link would be more useful.

If users need a lot of extra information to do a task, you might have tried to include too much in a single step. You need to break the task into smaller steps.

Release notes

The digital edition builds on a short paragraph from the sixth edition about sequential structures.

The Content Guide did not mention this topic.

About this page

References

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Lynch PJ and Horton S (2016) ‘Information architecture’, Web style guide, Web Style Guide website, accessed 30 May 2020.

Shibata H and Hori K (2005) ‘Cognitive support for the organization of writing’, New Generation Computing, 26(2):97–124, doi:10.1007/s00354-008-0037-9.

University of Washington (n.d.) Patterns of organization, University of Washington, accessed 30 May 2020.

Usability.gov (2020) Organization structures, Usability.gov, accessed 30 May 2020.

This page was updated Thursday 10 June 2021.

Help us improve Style Manual

Did you find this page useful?