Reading Usable Help
@UsableHelp on Twitter
Gordon R. Meyer
The other day I visited The Art Institute of Chicago and parked my vehicle in the Grant Park underground parking garage. (For Canadians, that's "parkade" to you.) As I removed the entrance ticket from the automated dispenser, I experienced a problem that reminded me of a lot of software documentation.
As soon as I removed the ticket a recorded voice said "There are no cashiers on duty."
"Um, OK," I thought to myself, "So what?" It took me a few seconds to surmise that the point of the announcement must really be that I should pay for the parking before I get in my car to leave, because there is no person at the exit whom I can pay. This conclusion seemed to borne out by signs elsewhere in the garage.
So the excited declaration probably had its desired effect, but I'm not entirely sure of what its author had in mind. The message was certainly factually accurate, but it was also very unhelpful in that it requires the listener to draw their own conclusions about why the information might be necessary to know. "Pay at the automated kiosks before returning to your car" would be a much better message, if I'm correct in my assumptions.
This same distracting fact syndrome (DFS) happens frequently in onscreen Help and printed documentation. Usually in the form of a procedure-interrupting "Note" or "Warning" that states a fact without consequence or context. If you're looking for an easy way to improve your documentation, critically examining the precautionary notices is a good place to start.
Shortly after returning home I remembered a related old joke. Enjoy.