Risky Business



Risky Business – The pitfalls of users who truly don’t read the doc.

We’ve all been there. The daily task of looking at the comments section of our documentation to respond to users, only to discover a question or comment from a customer only to respond in frustration because he or she clearly did not read the precious words we’ve written. It’s obvious from the question asked, or the comment noted, because we’ve addressed the very issue just lines before, so crisply and clearly, they could not possibly have missed it.

How do we achieve that elusive goal- getting customers to comply? Why, oh why do customers ignore our hard work?

It turns out that customer compliance is a multilayered issue, and there is, as you would expect, no simple answer, but that doesn’t mean that it is out of reach. In order to get at the issue, you have to think of it much like an adventure I had when I was younger, though. Work with me on this:

I grew up in the center of a small town. My parents were professionals. I went away for a couple of weeks each summer to sleepaway camp and spent the bookend weekends with my Aunt Helen who lived on a working farm. When I was about 12 years old, on the first weekend, before camp started, we picked cherries and strawberries, canned some tomatoes, and I fed the chickens who pecked lazily in the field behind her house. I marveled at the acres of corn in tidy rows that would be ripe in a few weeks. I asked her the names of the hens.

“They don’t have names,” she said, “They give eggs a while, and then they’re food.”

So I nhensamed them. Bess, Mavis, Charlotte, Diana, Mary Ann, and so on. There were ten of them. They were cute, and they pecked near my feet. I could tell them apart based on color patterns and wattles. They each had unique personalities, even. I felt they deserved names. They were practically tame, after all.

In a couple of days, Aunt Helen drove me to camp, and I didn’t think much about her or the hens until I returned two weeks later to enjoy a couple more farm days before returning back to my parents and my hometown for the rest of the summer.

The problem was, three of the hens were gone. There were only two left – Charlotte and Bess. I looked for them in the yard, thinking they had hidden in the roost, or gone off to find shade. Of course they hadn’t. When I asked Aunt Helen, she matter-of-factly reminded me that they were food. My uncle John had wrung their necks, plucked them featherless, cut them up and wrapped them for freezing.

My expectations for the chickens and My Aunt Helen’s were vastly different. In other words, people don’t always behave or respond in the ways you expect them to. My Aunt had explained to me why the hens didn’t have names. I just didn’t follow directions very well. Lesson learned, feelings hurt.

Users are the same way, but when they don’t comply, sometimes it’s not just their feelings that are bruised.

There can be risks for the user in that users who fail to read or interpret the documentation fully are at risk of damaging the product (or, often themselves) through misuse or improper installation. And there are risks for their company or business because they will invariably head to the support department, resulting in higher costs, OR, as is the case in the primary example I used here, they will leave a time-consuming question or comment that could have been dodged had they merely read the doc.

So although there are lots of factors that can impact user compliance and reduce these risks, let’s dive into the top three that impact behavior and reduce risk:

Age. I work in mainframe software, so I am keenly aware of age. Usability pros are keenly aware of the link between age and reading patterns, especially when it comes to web-based content. Older users read more, and do not look to leave a page through clicking quite as often. Be aware, though, in design, that older users can miss imbedded links without other visual cues, so placing links below the original field (one page, no scrolling) can be a tricky thing. Think of page design as just that – like a newspaper, things that are placed “below the fold” are often viewed as less important if the target demographic is the 50+ group.

Next up is Education Level. Those with a greater education will stick to a greater focus in reading, where less educated page visitors will skip around looking for the graphic or link that takes them to the next step. This is a tricky design element, because pages get quickly busy, especially when graphics and diagrams are essential to the basic function of what you are trying to convey.

Industry. This is tough because software is different from science which is different from automotive (I could go on and on in the areas of tech doc, and we all know it). This is a terribly important factor, and yet it still ranks behind age and education. We are no longer “reading the manual” in page form, so we have to be slicker than that. But heavily-regulated industries like software and medicine require us to be vigilant in testing and certifying our documentation and also require lots of compliance with the voluminous doc we include. Be choosy in design, and this will help a lot.

What we know about what never works (or mostly doesn’t work)

Plenty of times, designers think that issuing a stern warning to “Read this!” Will make users more aware and thus they will read. That is simply not so. Telling people to read often makes no difference. If users are prepared to comply, they will. If they are planning to skip over or skim, your handy warning is not about to move them along.

Overusing warning signals, notes and other hazard signs does not seem to do the trick, either. UX designers have tried to put the visual equivalent of caution tape along the reader’s path, but to no avail. Even when users will experience a serious outcome like an outage or data loss, very rarely does a warning lead customers to be more wary. (Does this feel like it’s getting grim?)

Overuse of design elements like boxes or offsets also has little effect. Sometimes it is visually stunning, but it does not cause folks to read what is inside, alas.

So what do we do?

There IS hope, dear writer – there are proven methods to perk up your reader and get her to pay attention, I assure you. All is not lost.

The first and simplest is first and it is simple.

Lean doc. Lowest common denominator. Think about how easy it is to read a YA novel. If you haven’t done it, go flip through “The Hunger Games.” It’s not a bad story, seriously. The writing is pretty good. Or try “The Giver.” When writing is clean and written to a simpler audience, it goes by in a breeze. So do that. Give up on verbosity and passivity. Get things moving. Don’t write high; write low.

Layer things to keep it interesting. Ignore part of what I said in the previous paragraph and throw in something seriously challenging every now and then just to spice things up. Don’t complicate matters just for the sake of complication, mind you. And don’t write a 42-word sentence to prove anything to your high school English teacher. Just go ahead and write the processes for grown-ups in a naturally challenging way.

Test your work. Then test it again. Make sure that what you have written works. If you create a trusted setting and climate in your documentation, you will be trusted. Respond quickly and accurately to your clients when they do make those comments that clearly could have been solved by reading the doc and gently redirect their attention to the place in the paragraphs where you explained it. Do a little hand-holding so they can see the benefit of your well-crafted prose. I assure you, building that relationship is worth almost as much as your fine prose. When users can peek behind the curtain to see that the writer is there, pen-in-hand and really knows her stuff, it is like a miracle occurred. And it is a thing of beauty.

That is the moment when, like Tom Cruise in the movie, you can don your sunglasses and dance to whatever music you want – no one is watching and you have the best moves ever.

But unlike the character he plays in that ubiquitous film, your story ends much, much better.