This month’s Managing Up article for Steyer Associates—Mistakes Were Made: Yours, Mine, Theirs—focuses on what to do when you make the kind of mistake that keeps fastidious professionals awake at night. I turned in my draft file and congratulated myself for beating the submission deadline.
Then—holy cow—my next task appears:
You’ve got mail! You made a big effing mistake.
The error didn’t affect anyone but me (unlike in the corporate world). It cost me time and some money to resolve. I didn’t stay awake at night with fear, remorse, or trepidation.
However, I hate to make mistakes. Even typos bug me.
This error especially bugged me: I’m a tech writer and made a mistake because I didn’t read the instructions thoroughly.
To tell the truth, I skip the instructions lots of times. In my opinion, I should be able to follow the diagram without reading the text. The components’ design should be so obvious that I can’t mistakenly insert Tab A into Slot D.
And if it’s a web site, the steps should be obvious—without requiring 3 to 4 pages of help text for each screen.
I made a mistake on a web site that I use often, and that I’ve cursed every time I use it. That particular site is a textbook case of what not to do:
- The Next button moves location on each screen.
- After you click the appropriate items or fill in the text boxes, the button below the last item is positioned where you’d expect a Next button. But it either: a) launches a help screen with 500 to 2000 words of text, or 2) proposes to cancel and move to a different process, dropping all your data.
- On some screens, red asterisks appear across 2 columns of options. After you complete all the red star items, it prompts that the columns represent an Either/Or choice. So go unclick all the items in one of the columns.
- At the end, you get 2 successive and nearly identical “approve/continue” screens, but can only edit from one of them.
- At Checkout, you must click through 4 successive Continue/OK screens, none of which allow any action, until you can finally enter payment information.
- The “I agree” checkboxes on 3 different pages each include 25-50 words of text, and the clickable checkbox is placed differently on each screen.
This web site has existed more or less unchanged for 10 years. I’ve used it multiple times. The first few times, I did read all the instructions. I swear it.
However, recently I completed my tasks believing that my current case was like all previous cases. There was a difference I didn’t detect from the screen instructions. Because I thought I knew what I was doing, I didn’t reread the lengthy help.
This isn’t a grumbling “get off my lawn” complaint—I don’t have a lawn.
If I did, I’d probably skip reading the fertilizer instructions and inadvertently set the dang thing on fire.
In the future, I’ll do lots of things without reading the instructions.
Because my web behavior is hopelessly human, here are my real complaints:
- We now have almost 20 years of web design experience.
- Sites with 5 to 10 years of support data know exactly which mistakes users make.
Yet the pain/expense in the last roll out never recedes from site owners’ memory. Or they are unable to understand the cost of users’ mistakes.
Therefore, no usability advances appear, year over year.
- We have a large educated population of Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millennials who are trained web professionals. They need jobs.
- Any Web 1.0 design that has persisted into the middle of the second decade of the 21st century is a blight on humanity.
The responsible entities appear to be incapable of shame.
Here are examples that plague me in publishing tasks, making tasks take 2 to 5 times longer than necessary:
- U.S. Copyright Office
- Goodreads author dashboard (don’t even start me …)
- Most professional membership sites
(Yeah, put the Flag beside the Delete icon, next to the email title, and make the icons 2 pixels wide—no one will ever click in the wrong place.)
I’m off now — my To-Do list is endlessly filled with other typos to insert and undetectable errors to commit.
Image:Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895.png (for Wikipedia)