Must you be so….human?

The winner of the technological quote of the year (so far) is:
Just don’t hold it that way.

This was Steve Jobs‘ initial statement when confronted with reception problems of the iPhone 4. He was responding to the now infamous complaint that the signal strength dropped when the phone was held in a typical fashion.

For someone who has built an empire based on outstanding usability, it was an astonishingly stupid thing to say. Jobs was telling his users: we don’t need to conform our products to you; instead, you need to confirm to our products. In other words: don’t be human.

Jobs’ arrogance is not surprising. His string of recent product successes went straight to his already super-sized head. The greatest danger of success is thinking you can do no wrong. After immense pressure, though, he finally relented, offering a free bumper case to fix the problem, and full refunds to users who wanted them.

The simple lesson is this: usability, that is, designing a product with the end user in mind, isn’t just one thing – it’s every thing. I continually see examples of poor documentation design where the user’s needs were an afterthought, if they were a thought at all.

Here are some recent cases:

  • An investment company sent me some forms to sign. I dutifully signed and returned them all. Later, I received one of the forms back. It turns out that even though it had areas highlighted in yellow for me to sign, date and initial, it was my copy. The only thing indicating this were the tiny words in the bottom right corner stating: Copy 1, Client. Typically, when I receive client copies, they are visibly marked with a stamp or a post-it note, stating: CLIENT COPY – PLEASE RETAIN.
  • My credit card statement is a spectacular example of wasted space. Each 8 1/2 x 11 page lists only about 20 transactions, which take up about 20% of the page. The information on the remaining 80% (the payment portion, any special news or announcements, the total purchases and balance, and the interest) is unnecessarily duplicated on every page. And the legal information is duplicated on the back of each page! It’s not uncommon for my statements to be five or more pages. This isn’t just a waste of paper: it makes it harder for me to locate and review all the transactions, because I have so many pages to waft through. The information that only needs to appear once should only appear once. With the space gained, a five-page statement could be reduced to one or two pages. There should also be a line space separating each set of transactions by date, again to make it easier to read through them.
  • Our garbage pick-up schedule indicated that July 1, the Canada Day holiday, was a pick-up day. Chaos and confusion ruled on our streets. Some people thought this must be a misprint, and did not leave their garbage out. Others took a chance and did take out their garbage. It turns out it was a pickup day, to allow the workmen to enjoy a long weekend. A simple asterisked note on the calender would have avoided all this confusion, for example: Note: This is a collection day despite the official holiday.

Usability must permeate every of your work. It means doing things like:

  • creating TOCs that can quickly be glanced through to give an aerial view of the product
  • writing conceptual overviews that leave no doubt about what the object or item in question is, and which include real-world examples and analogies where possible
  • including overviews in tasks and then explaining the task in simple, easy-to-digest steps
  • avoiding long sentences and paragraphs
  • using fonts and page layouts that are clean, simple and readable
  • breaking up large blocks of text with headings
  • creating indices that anticipate all the different ways a user could look up a topic

Not doing these things results in unusable documentation. Our response cannot be:
Just don’t read it that way.

Our response must be:
Just what is the way you read it?

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One thought on “Must you be so….human?

  1. All of our lives would be more pleasant if customer communications like bills and garbage pickup calendars were designed with the basic common sense that people will be reading them, not machines.

    As a member of the bifocals generation, I also appreciate companies (like the Target chain's pharmacies) that have made an effort to print their prescription labels large enough for the users to read without searching for a magnifying glass.

    Or roadside information signs printed large enough to read from a moving car 3 carlengths away. (The one time I was in Canada, the font on the bilingual road signs was too small to read easily.

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