Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
A recent "trip advisor" column in the Chicago Tribune noted that one of the TSA's biggest challenges is that U.S. travelers struggle to understand the limitations on carrying liquids onboard an airplane. Setting aside the issues of the effectiveness of the ban itself, I think this is essentially an instructional problem.
The success of the TSA's education campaign about the requirements depends upon their "3-1-1 for Carry-ons" campaign and messaging. But the instructions and message are confusing. Pictured here is an advisory sign at O'Hare airport, the text of which also appears at the 3-1-1 website.
Instructionally, 3-1-1 is a mess. The numbers refer to quantities of different measure and the final "1," while perhaps clever, only adds to the nonsensical nature of the slogan. The "3" refers to the maximum size of each container, in ounces, but not to the number of containers you can bring. The first "1" refers to the size of the bag, in quarts, in which you must place all of the containers. The second "1" refers, well, back to the bag again but now it's the number of bags that are allowed.
The text embedded with each numeral, on the instructional graphic that the TSA provides in many sizes and formats at the website, further confuses the definitions by constantly referring back to previous quantities. The illustration also clutters the message by including call-outs that justify each requirement. An unnecessary and defensive measure on the part of the agency.
Finally, the "3-1-1" message conflicts in meaning, and spirit, with "311" as the non-emergency phone number alternative to dialing "911." A practice that was made official by the FCC over a decade ago and is heavily promoted by many cities, including Chicago.
As an alternative to the graphics and slogan, perhaps the TSA would consider a single, straightforward sentence: "Liquids and gels must be in bottles no larger than 3 ounces each, and all bottles must fit in a single quart-size, zip-top bag." Not very catchy, but I do think it's clearer.