Too Much Information: The Enemy of Usability

You may have seen the video this week of CNN reporter Ivan Watson covering UN aid workers distributing food in Haiti. Some people in the crowd started shouting that the biscuits were no good because the packaging had a 2008 date on it. Turns out, 2008 was when the biscuits were manufactured. The expiration date was November 2010.

When your users are starving people in desperate need of food, and they’re afraid to eat the food because they’re confusing the manufacturing date with the expiration date, you’ve got a serious usability problem. The packaging is customer-facing information—it should contain only information that customers need.

This is one of the most important ways that technical communicators can contribute to the documentation process. Subject matter experts (SMEs) are often too close to the material to recognize what’s critical information for the customer and what’s extraneous. If you’re documenting a task, and the procedure contains information that seems unrelated, question it. Maybe you’ll learn why the material is pertinent (which will make you a more valuable member of the team, due to your increased knowledge) or maybe the SMEs will realize that the material can be cut (which will make you a more valuable member of the team, because you’ve helped streamline the documentation).

One of the roles of a technical communicator is that of user advocate. Lean documentation is good for the customer and good for the company. Yes, some SMEs may have trouble letting go of material they’ve put time into developing. Others may fall back on the standby argument, “But we’ve always done it this way!” The technical communicator’s job is to gently explain why the old way of doing things served its purpose at the time, but now, we have other considerations (like costly translation) that force us to include only material that our customers need at the moment they’re performing the task.

Providing the right information at the right time is especially important when writing for customers in a potentially high-risk situation. We can’t expect people under stress to read carefully. We must strip down the message to its essentials. What do customers need to know to avert disaster? In a critical moment, that’s the only information they want. Everything else is noise.

Related posts:
Gated Community: A Lesson in Usability
Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability

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2 thoughts on “Too Much Information: The Enemy of Usability

  1. Hi Andrea,

    I absolutely agree the two dates led to confusion, which compounded the numerous mistakes made during that attempt to distribute food. What I don’t think most people know is just how complicated the Board of Health laws are and how much they vary from state to state, even county to county, not to mention country to country.

    One may require a sell by date, another a use by date, while still another requires both. Then there are different coding systems that companies use or specific products require to document the produced/made on date. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the B.O.H. laws in Pennsylvania. I also dealt with imported items, only on a minimal level, but enough to see the variety of dating and/or coding required for other countries.

    Because the World Food Programme is an organization that provides food internationally, I believe it would try to comply with as many different countries food laws simultaneously. And the only way to do that is to have every date/code required on the packages.

    Believe me after 25 yrs working in the food industry I can understand the feeling of redundancy, but I also understand the reasons behind it. Each is the way used by a specific BOH to comply with their documention, which is how they are able to know the who, what, when, how and why for any recalls or other issues.

    Peace and Take Care,
    Colleen

  2. Colleen, thanks for this information. I sympathize with the manufacturer’s desire to meet the requirements of various international markets while at the same time facing the constraints of limited space on the packaging. I’ve spent a good part of my career as a technical writer doing this. But it isn’t enough to consider the needs of the manufacturer and the various governing bodies. The needs of the consumer must be of primary concern. I’m sure that whoever designed the packaging meant well in trying to include as much information as possible; but as the title of the post indicates, when it comes to usability, that’s generally the wrong thing to do.

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