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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Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability

Good design makes reading more relaxing.

Self-publishing has made it easier than ever for authors to get their words into print. However, many authors of self-published books have little or no training in page layout. The design principles of desktop publishing can help you improve readability and customer satisfaction. Help build a loyal following with these six techniques:

1. Use white space.

When you’re paying to publish a book, every square millimeter is precious real estate.  But white space isn’t wasted space. White space gives the readers’ eyes a place to rest. More importantly, it gives their mind a place to rest, so they can reflect on what they’ve read. This enhances the learning process so that readers will retain more.

To provide white space, use adequate margins.  Favor short paragraphs over long ones. Consider page breaks at the end of sections. The small increase in cost will dramatically improve readability. Continue reading “Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability”

Hooking the Reader: It’s Not Rocket Science

I hate to contradict Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the beginning is not a very good place to start. Whether you’re writing a biography or describing a bird, the best place to start is with the most interesting features.

Before naturalist Roger Tory Peterson came along, a typical description of a robin started at the tip of the beak and ended at the tip of the tail. It wasn’t until you were halfway through the description that you learned a robin has a red breast. Peterson changed that. As the inventor of the modern field guide, he used descriptions that focused on distinguishing characteristics, so birders could accurately identify different species.

Likewise in a biography, start out with what makes the individual unique. Here’s an example of a rather uninspiring biographical note from a portrait at the San Diego Air and Space Museum:

Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Scientist
Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912. As chief scientist at the Peenemunde
Rocket Center in Germany, developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2.

Before I even get to the interesting part (that he invented the first long-range ballistic missile), I’ve already stopped caring. Impatient readers might stop reading. I’d rewrite this note as follows:

Wernher Von Braun
Rocket Scientist
Developed the first long range ballistic missile, the V-2, while chief scientist at the
Peenemunde Rocket Center in Germany. Born Wirsitz, Germany, 23 March 1912.

In the very first sentence, give readers something to care about. Capture their imagination. Propel them into the second sentence, then into the third. Today’s readers filter the mass of material that confronts them. You have a few seconds to convince readers that your story, article, or paper is worth their time. Don’t waste a sentence. Don’t waste a word. Compel them to read.

Gated Community: A Lesson in Usability

A few years ago, my husband decided to install a gate across our tree-lined driveway to discourage teenagers from using our yard as a turnaround. I imagined the gate would be the height of a picket fence, to keep out cars but not deter pedestrians. Hubby had different ideas. The gate is massive. It inspired our neighbors to come pay it homage. I admit, the iron posts and brick columns are beautiful. The lions’ heads on either side give it character. But the message it sends is Do Not Enter Here.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the gate has no call button. If someone has a legitimate reason for coming to our home, we either have to give them the code, or we have to open the gate for them in advance. The gate is also quite finicky. If you type the wrong code, it won’t open—even if you try again and enter the right code.

So people who can’t open the gate will sit in their cars, using their Blackberries to search the internet for our (unlisted) phone number. Or they’ll call anyone they know who might have our number, trying to figure out how to get us to come outside and open the gate. They’ll do this for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. Sometimes, they’ll give up and drive away.

But here’s the thing: you can walk around the gate. That’s right: you can get out of your car, take the two foot detour through the pine straw, tromp the thirty yards to our front door, and ring the bell. It does not occur to some people to do this.

I’m not a psychologist, so I can’t explain this tunnel vision. But as a professional communicator, I’m tasked with anticipating how people may become so stymied by the unexpected that they overlook the obvious. People under stress don’t always make good decisions, so my job is to point them toward the path I want them to travel.

Next on my husband’s to-do list: put up a sign telling people what to do if the gate doesn’t open. I’ll do the writing.

Related posts:
Self-Published Books: Designing for Readability
Too Much Information: The Enemy of Usability