There is a standard way of representing a directory structure:


Is there a similar such convention we should use for indicating how to select an item in a series of menus, or a series of mouse-clicks through some windows? Should it be done with dashes, slashes, arrows, or something else?

For example, if I wanted to tell somebody how to turn off the pagefile, would I do it:

  • With arrows:

    Control Panel->System->Advanced settings->Performance settings->Advanced tab->Change->Set no paging file

  • With slashes:

    Control Panel / System / Advanced settings / Performance settings / Advanced tab / Change / Set no paging file

  • With a bulleted list:

    • Control Panel
    • System
    • Advanced settings
    • Performance settings
    • Advanced tab
    • Change
    • Set no paging file
  • In some other manner?

  • 1
    Why did you ask this here? Are you referring to SU in any way, or did you mean to post somewhere else?
    – nhinkle
    Dec 18, 2011 at 3:15
  • I mean when answering a question, how should I describe what I mean. I thought it was implicit that I was talking about SU.
    – soandos
    Dec 18, 2011 at 3:23
  • OK... I still don't really understand your question. Could you perhaps edit it to include some sort of example of what you mean?
    – nhinkle
    Dec 18, 2011 at 3:25
  • @nhinkle, clearer now?
    – soandos
    Dec 18, 2011 at 3:47
  • If I understand correctly, you're asking how people should write down the steps to achieve something in a menu system?
    – nhinkle
    Dec 18, 2011 at 3:55
  • @soandos It should not matter as long as the structure is clear. I would add spaces (and maybe boldface) to your answer (2nd link), to avoid a longstringoftext.
    – iglvzx
    Dec 18, 2011 at 3:57
  • @nhinkle yes, that is what I mean
    – soandos
    Dec 18, 2011 at 4:00
  • @soandos do you mind if I edit your question a bit to clarify that?
    – nhinkle
    Dec 18, 2011 at 4:06
  • @nhinkle, please feel free
    – soandos
    Dec 18, 2011 at 4:18
  • @soandos I took my best shot at outlining what I think you're getting at. Feel free to further edit it if I misunderstood anything.
    – nhinkle
    Dec 18, 2011 at 4:28
  • None of them. I will not give up my guillemets! And I don't think anyone going to th trouble of inserting proper Unicode arrows will go back to that poor ASCII imitation.
    – Daniel Beck Mod
    Dec 18, 2011 at 6:50

4 Answers 4


File system paths are intended to be used by programs. A standardized format and separator is essential. Our explanations are read by humans capable of handling a computer. There's just no need. What the separator is is obvious in context.

Let's just make sure the description is readable, and keep our hands off each others' posts for what is pretty much just personal preference.

If there's really a need to use e.g. @haimg's "verbose" format, with a difficult, non-obvious sequence of actions, adding it to a post is already covered by editing posts for clarity.

  • This question was not about editing, more for my own use as I write answers. Does that change anything?
    – soandos
    Dec 18, 2011 at 11:05
  • @soandos in that case, use whatever format you personally like best, if it works for you. I use guillemets because they're easy to type for me, look like breadcrumbs and work well with italic text I use to highlight these sequences. Others use actual Unicode arrows. As I said, it's a personal preference and only rarely relevant (when it makes a post difficult to read or understand). If you're concerned about what separator to use, check others' post and use what you like best.
    – Daniel Beck Mod
    Dec 18, 2011 at 11:41
  • I agree with DB that people should choose their own format, as long as it's legible.
    – nhinkle
    Dec 18, 2011 at 19:05

I don't think there is a standard way to represent steps (GUI actions) needed to perform a certain task. However, I just checked Windows help, and they use numbered lists to explain how to do things.

I suggest you do the following: if the steps are sufficiently long, write a numbered list, e.g.:

  1. Open Window A.
  2. Select option B.
  3. Press button C.

If the steps are very short, for example sub-menu selection, use | (or if you want your reply to be really fancy) to separate steps and write them in-line, quoting with back-ticks (`): Tools | Options


I'd personally prefer italics over bold or code spans, and single characters (like , », , , >, -, or |) over something like ->.

I don't know about other platforms, but Apple's documentation tends to use > (usually without any emphasis) to separate different actions.

I've settled on this format myself:

  • Dashes for hierarchies of menu items: *File - Close*
  • → for everything else: *System Preferences → Mission Control*

But any conventions would be platform-specific, and there aren't really good reasons to choose one over another. Enforcing some particular format would also increase the number of inessential edits and require new users to look it up before posting.

  • I mean, if I edit something, I'll change -> to while I'm at it, but that's definitely not supposed to be the only reason for editing.
    – slhck
    Dec 19, 2011 at 16:08

I'm not a big fan of using arrows and the like for big sequences of actions that span multiple GUI elements. It's fine for menu paths (e.g. Start > All Programs > Accessories > Notepad) and the like, but gets confusing quickly when you're dealing with different windows and tabs.

Personally I use a style similar to haimg's, but without an enumerated list. I tend to use those only for really long sequences of actions. For instance, I'd instruct someone to access the pagefile settings in Windows 7 as follows:

Open the Control Panel and go to the System page. Select Advanced system settings from the blue bar on the left. In the window that appears, select the Advanced tab and then click the Settings button in the Performance section. In the Performance options window that pops up, select the Advanced tab, then click the Change button under Virtual Memory. Finally, a Virtual Memory window appears where you can select the No paging file radio button, completely disabling your page file.

It might sound a little verbose, but you'd be surprised how helpful to readers mentioning the little things can be, whether you tell them the thing they're clicking on is a button or menu, alert them when new windows will pop up, or provide visual cues like "the blue bar on the left". It helps even the most super of super users find what they're looking for in a sea of GUI elements much faster and gives a little extra assurance to less advanced users that they're actually doing what they should be doing.

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